A Sweetheart of a Meal
Where to Wine and Dine Your Valentine
With its white tablecloths and spot-lighted display cases of carved-jade
treasures, SAM WOO RESTAURANT at first appears icily formal—and
uptight place where cool waiters intimidate patrons into whispering.
Ha! This is a thoroughly Chinese restaurant
in Irvine, and dining there is hardly a silent, reverent affair.
One weeknight, families
with small children talked and laughed around us, while in the
back of the straight-laced dining room a vast party of American
and Chinese business people whooped it up. Only a few months
old, Sam Woo has already become a popular gathering spot.
Maybe it is just that Sam Woo is in a great
location; a few doors down, a major Asian supermarket pulls in
customers from around
south Orange County. Next door to the restaurant is the often-crowded
Sam Woo B.B.Q., which sells barbequed poultry and meats to go.
The scent of star anise and ginger, a seduction that’s
hard to fight, floats out into the parking lot.
It helps that the restaurant offers a traditional
Cantonese banquet menu (the chef is from Hong Kong) that emphasizes
(see them swimming in the aquarium by the kitchen). There is
named Sam Woo; the Chinese characters forming the restaurant’s
name translate into “man and nature in harmony.” Sam
Woo is actually a chain, with other restaurants in such Chinese
neighborhoods as Monterey Park.
This is not a restaurant that has been boiled
and strained to fit “American” tastes.
There may be overly familiar dishes such as orange-peel chicken
and egg flower soup, but there are also mustard greens with bamboo
pith, fish-maw soup, and a number of fragrant, wonderful hot
The hot pots are listed on a menu of chef’s recommendations
that is separate from the huge main menu, and selections from this
small menu should form the core of the meal. Be sure to choose
a hot pot—named for the covered earthenware in which a
stew of tofu, vegetables, fish, chicken, pork or any other combination
thereof is baked. The seafood-and-tofu hot pot (enough to feed
four) includes chunks of dried tofu, its chewy skin impregnated
with the flavor of the fish stock, and rock cod, scallops, and
shrimp. The ingredients taste fresh and clean.
Many other dishes are also good: shredded-duck
soup with its rich, smoky stock and yellow chives; a tangy appetizer
shrimp and vegetables served in a lettuce-leaf cup; panfried,
salty Hong Kong-style noodles. Several of the same dishes are
at lower prices next door at Sam Woo B.B.Q., a bare-bones,
Formica-table diner that does not take reservations. (The menu
there also offers
delicious pork ribs and 16 variations on the thick rice soup
Sam Woo Restaurant, 15333 Culver
Dr., Irvine; (949) 262-0688. Open daily 11 A.M.-10
P.M. Full bar. Lot parking.
Visa, Mastercard. Dinner for two, food only: