Seafood Rules in the Exhilarating Land of Sam
month ago we visited the world of Sam . . . Sam Woo Barbeque
Chinese restaurant in Irvine that is packing in everyone from locals to visiting
UCI professors. Now it is time to go next door, to the more formal—and
amazingly, even more frenetic—Sam Woo Restaurant, where seafood is king.
On Saturday nights, Sam Woo is a madhouse. Enter
the dining room through the crowded bar, and you’ll probably
bump into a waiter presenting a live lobster, wriggling inside
a plastic bag, to a table of amazed guests. The back of the
dining room has been reserved for aquariums, as crowded as the dining room
itself but with channel cod, lobster, conch and other live seafoods.
The dining room is disarmingly unadorned, a
long, white-ceilinged room dominated by center columns housing
back-lit glass show-cases. Inside are Chinese objects
d’art in pottery and cloisonné. The four Chinese characters
that spell Sam Woo Restaurant are displayed on a side wall in black-on-white
The Sam Woo chain started in Monterrey Park
and has expanded to more than 13 different locations. It has done
so by using a simple Cantonese formula:
freshest ingredients possible, cooked in an utterly simple manner.
There are two menus: the regular, 173-item menu,
which is seafoods from No. 1 all the way up to No. 98, and a smaller,
gold-colored menu card.
33 Chinese delicacies, and don’t overlook it. It contains some
of the best dishes.
A good starting point for a Chinese feast might
be the poetically named peacock blossom platter, an artfully arranged
mound of superb meats
from Sam Woo
Barbecue next door. Of course, you’ll have to sift through
the landlubber protein on this platter if you want to get to the
seafoods. Things like five-spice roast
duck, roast suckling pig and sweet-edged strips of barbecued pork
might very well catch your eye before you get to the chewy, orange-tinted
cousin of the squid.
After the barbecue, I suggest a wonderful appetizer
called vegetable roll. You’ll
have to ask your waiter for it, because it is not listed on either menu. The
people of Shanghai call this dish mock goose because of the skin-like sheet of
dried bean curd that holds it together—it’s long, white
and wrinkled, like a goose neck. The filling is julienne bamboo
and carrot, laced with bits
of tree ear and black mushroom. This is one of the glories of Chinese
Now you might want to try a soup, such as the
tangy Westlake beef soup, the simple and satisfying winter melon
soup or, from the
chicken and ginseng soup. This last could be called Jewish penicillin
with an added kick: a steaming caldron of rich chicken broth
a few chives and some slices of bittersweet ginseng root, said
to heat the body and infuse it with bright yang energy.
Minced shrimp with lettuce, also from the gold
menu, makes a fine intermediate course that will tantalize your
dish is a twist on the better-known lettuce-wrapped squab (or
meat, smeared with plum sauce, is served in lettuce leaf cups.
It provides an intriguing textural contrast of crisp water chestnuts,
shrimp and stringy, full flavored bamboo. The idea is to pick
it up and eat it like a burrito (good luck).
On to the real meat and potatoes of this restaurant
. . . or should we say, fish and vegetables. Live lobster is a
$8.75 a pound,
go for more exotic seafoods, perhaps the tender sautéed conch with green
onion, or even the restaurant’s exemplary spicy salted
Anyone not on a budget should consider the incredible
cod, a red-skinned beauty of a fish, steamed and sprinkled with
green onion and
ginger. Taste this delicate, sweet-fleshed fish and you’ll wonder why anyone would
ever consider cooking fresh fish any other way than steaming. It’s a big
ticket item—$47.90 for a four-pound fish—but exemplifies
how good Chinese cooking can be.
Another great dish is hearts of baby bok choy,
sautéed simply with garlic
and oil. The vegetable, with its tiny green center leaves, is
Not everything works on this level. The vaunted
the spongy center portion of a bamboo shoot, absorbs too much
and is upstaged
by the humble mustard greens it is served with. Cross ribs
with orange sauce turns out to be a sugary mess, good meat ruined
by a sticky,
The baked clams with mint have an oddly medicinal taste, and
the house braised duck
Fortunately, for every dish like those, there
seem to be three good ones. Lamb hot pot (from the gold menu, again)
of good chunky
dried bean curd, which absorbs the gamy meat flavors beautifully.
Spicy salt pork chop,
a northern Chinese classic, is properly crunchy and golden
brown. Even the rice dishes are worth a visit. Salted fish
is a step
the mundane fried rice dishes of more Americanized Chinese
Who would have imagined it? Irvine, the new
center of the world of Sam.
Sam Woo Restaurant is moderate to expensive.
Appetizers are $2.50 to $30. Soups are $4.50 to $10. Main dishes
at market prices.