Sam Woo Wins OC Diners with BBQ, Seafood
USC classmates to run eatery at former Cano’s
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
refer to the quality and fabulous tastes of the food. The latter restaurant
incorporates more adjuncts to the all-appealing dining scene.
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
by the crowds gathered within at all times. Many, like me have dined
since the opening only a couple of months ago that we feel like house
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
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
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
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
Of course, you can also have any of the menu
items to go. So, when Formica-topped tables and nondescript tile
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
walls, nice artifacts,
a relaxing cocktail area, and good carpeting underfoot. But
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
even a trio of elaborately crafted deities representing health,
wealth and happiness on a shelf facing you as you enter.
point in this
well appointed dining room, however, has to be the 11 massive
tanks holding fresh abalone, lobster, crabs, shrimp and dozens
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
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
Taking a look at the menu, itself 173
items long, there are categories and categories and categories
lists a dozen
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
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
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
biggest, brassiest bargain meal of all. Lunch at Sam
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
know you read about the restaurant in my column.
Orange County Business Journal
November 7, 1994