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Sam Woo Wins OC Diners with BBQ, Seafood

USC classmates to run eatery at former Cano’s site

There’s no way for me to sidestep the issue—the biggest bargain in fine dining in Orange County at this time is at Sam Woo in Irvine.

Take your pick: barbecue, casseroles and noodle dishes at bargain basement prices in the stripped down version or go upscale at the rather glamorously decorated seafood restraint next door.

Of course, inclusion of the former—which features a food-to-go counter and glass case showing off half a roasted pig, soy-simmered duck and red tinged, utterly lean Chinese barbecued pork—indicates that by “fine dining” I refer to the quality and fabulous tastes of the food. The latter restaurant incorporates more adjuncts to the all-appealing dining scene.

The opening of Sam Woo was widely anticipated in the county. After all, Los Angeles and a few other far-flung places had several of these family-run food emporiums already. Anticipation has quickly turned to admiration as evidenced by the crowds gathered within at all times. Many, like me have dined so often since the opening only a couple of months ago that we feel like house fixtures.

So, just what is the cosmic pull that distinguished this place? If you’re Chinese, the affordable quality long ago became part of a personal food lexicon. For the rest of us, some were lucky enough to discover it by way of friends or relatives (in my case, I’m fortunate to have married into a large and fascinating Chinese family a long time ago), and some were just interested enough in the art of dining in all its forms to discover Sam Woo by other means.

The first step is to get yourself to the corner of Culver Drive and Irvine Center Drive midway between the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways. Here you will find the great food shopping adventure called 99 Ranch Market. It has a grand array of quality fresh meats, live fish and shellfish and fresh vegetables of exceptional caliber, not to mention a massive assortment of food products of Asian persuasion. It is next to this market that Sam Woo in its dual identities resides.

If you’re in the mood for casual sit-down eating, there are 26 large platters of rice awaiting on the Sam Woo B.B.Q. side: Beef brisket, curries, roast meats, chicken and meat combinations with vegetables, satay and more sit atop the mound maxing out at $4.75 per dish. There are 58 house specialties: shrimps with spicy salt, scallops with black beans, sautéed fish with greens, kidney with scallions and such that range from $4 to $8.95 per generous serving. Noodle dishes in broth and chow-mein-style with all manner of meat and vegetable accouterments (45 of them) range from $1.50 to $5.50. And there are those aromatic hot pots: earthenware casseroles large enough to feed at least two in which broths and ingredients have simmered slowly fusing deep tastes of roast pork with fried tofu, beef brisket with turnips or perhaps and assortment of meats and vegetables. These go for a mere $5.95 to $7.50.

Total items on the Sam Woo B.B.Q. menu: 223. Vegetables and meat items to take away from the long display counter: too numerous to mention.

Of course, you can also have any of the menu items to go. So, when Formica-topped tables and nondescript tile floors will do, this fits the bill nicely.

There does perhaps lurk within each of us, I suppose, more of a desire to dine at a table draped in a nice cloth and surrounded by mirrored walls, nice artifacts, a relaxing cocktail area, and good carpeting underfoot. But we usually have to pay the price for the stylish décor. Not so at Sam Woo Seafood.

Next to that casual-as-can-be barbecue hangout is this place with plate glass doors, plate glass windows, hand carved furnishings in the waiting area and even a trio of elaborately crafted deities representing health, wealth and happiness on a shelf facing you as you enter. The real focal point in this well appointed dining room, however, has to be the 11 massive tanks holding fresh abalone, lobster, crabs, shrimp and dozens of kinds of fish that may become your meal.

A fresh pot of hot tea always arrives forthwith at the Chinese table. You might, however, want to order the delicious house iced tea, which is an infusion of tropical tea, citrus and other fruit juices that ready my palate for lots of flavors.

The price of the food on the a la carte menu here does jump a notch, but it’s still a bargain compared to what it cost for meals elsewhere. At lunch there are 38 specials that top out at a ridiculously low $5.50 each—unmatched eating anywhere.

Taking a look at the menu, itself 173 items long, there are categories and categories and categories of foods. One segment lists a dozen dishes using shark’s fin, abalone and sea cucumbers; scallops and clams are good for 13 dishes, one scallop dish made with and X.O. Cognac sauce; lobster, crab, squid and oysters, fish, poultry, meat and vegetable dishes round out the rest of the document.

This can be your clip-and-save paragraph to tuck in your wallet, because herein I’m suggesting a handful of very special items to get you started at your first dinner when you might be a bit overwhelmed by all this. Start with barbecue spare ribs and stuffed crab claws ($13 for the two dishes). Have West Lake beef soup or winter melon soup for the next course at $6.50, a big bowl at that price that will actually serve four as one course of a meal.

Be forewarned that the honey-glazed walnut shrimp are the best in the county and therefore addictive ($11.95 for a platter of them), and the same can be said for the sautéed green beans.

If there are enough in your party to keep going, I’d suggest either filet of sole with greens or steamed rock cod—although the sweet and sour rock cod is also great at $7.95. Lobster or crab in ginger scallion sauce is almost decadent, and for those who need poultry, I’d start with chicken in garlic sauce adding another $7.95 to the bill. Orange peel beef (lots of dried orange peel and a dash of hot peppers makes this a really redolent meat) or Peking pork chops would also make my “first time” list. Both are $7.95.

And just as you think that this is about all the food talk you can stand, I have one more thing to say that begs your attention because it represents the biggest, brassiest bargain meal of all. Lunch at Sam Woo Seafood!

Along with the big menu, you’ll be handed a two-page affair of luncheon specials that come with both soup and fried rice. Half the entrees are priced at $4.95, the rest at $5.50. On the cheaper side are many of the dishes I’ve mentioned in above paragraphs plus chicken salad, Mongolian beef and lots of recognizable Chinese stir-fried combinations. On the $5.50 side are those wonderful string beans, shrimp with snow peas and broccoli, shrimp with lobster sauce, chicken chow mein and deep-fried whole fresh fish.

At these prices, take four to lunch for $20 to $22 and eat like there’s no tomorrow on food that’s absolutely fascinating and delicious, dish after dish. Then you’ll understand why Sam Woo is the restaurant everybody is talking about. Say hello to the friendly owner, Peter Cheung, and let them know you read about the restaurant in my column.

-Fifi Chao
Orange County Business Journal
November 7, 1994

Prices subject to change without notice.
Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant 949.262.0688
Sam Woo BBQ Express 949-262-0888
Fax 949.262.0328
15333 Culver Drive, Ste 720 Irvine, CA 92604


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