Sam’s in Irvine Woos with B.B.Q.
Back in the early 80’s, I was a regular
at a Monterey Park Chinese restaurant called Sam Woo. Later, I
often ate at a nearby
spinoff by the name of Same Ward, and then at still another, Sam
World. (In Chinese, all three restaurants had the same name, pronounced
roughly, saam wo, and one suspects the owners were having a bit
of fun with those quaint transcriptions.)
The original Sam Woo built a reputation for
the best Chinese barbecue in the San Gabriel Valley: crisp-skinned
duck, redolent of five-spice; roast suckling
pig with a crackling skin; a sweet smoked sausage reminiscent of wild boar;
chewy cuttlefish rubbed red with barbecue seasoning. Later, the owners branched
out into seafoods, hot-pots and exotic delicacies. By 1987, Sam Woo and its
ilk had become one of the busiest restaurant groups in the San Gabriel Valley.
Here’s the news: a Sam Woo B.B.Q. has opened in Irvine. The Irvine place
is a dead-ringer for one of those Chinese barbecues in Monterey Park or Alhambra
or San Gabriel, from the harsh lighting right down to the enthusiastic, predominantly
Chinese clientele. The restaurant sits in a commercial complex near the busy
corner of Culver and Irvine Center drives, between a Chinese market called
99 Ranch and a place called Sam Woo Restaurant (That’s Sam Woo restaurant,
as distinguished from Sam Woo B.B.Q; the restaurant is an upscale seafood
house, to be reviewed soon).
It’s clear as soon as you enter that this
is a place for serious eating. The right half is a colorful takeout
area, staffed by eager young cooks ready
to chop you a duck, shovel up some barbecued tripe or dish something
out from the steam table. The left half is crowded with Formica-topped
tables and hard-backed
chairs; that din in your ears is clattering dishes and various Chinese
dialects being spoken at high pitch. Irvine has an ever-growing
Chinese community; during
the week, a large percentage of them eat lunch here.
Though this is a cash-only operation, the menu
lists a staggering 223 dishes. That number includes barbecued meats,
soups, hot-pots, noodle
plates, congees (rice porridges) and specialty dishes—in short,
Cantonese standards ideal for the no-nonsense style of eating popular
all over East Asia.
The natural starting place is barbecue. Sam
Woo barbecue platter usually contains about four different meats,
depending on what is in abundance
on a given day.
Ours had a few pieces of roast duck, a pile of sweet-edged char siu
(barbecued pork) cut into strips, roast pig (skin on) and a few pieces
cuttlefish on the top.
Pork intestine in spiced soy sauce isn’t normally part of the platter,
but tripe-lovers should request it, or merely add an order. This tripe has
a firm, chewy texture and a sweet soy aftertaste, making it one of the most
delicious organ meats I’ve ever tasted. Barbecued spare ribs of pork
is popular among novice customers, who may not know the rewards of plain old
barbecued pork. Char siu has the same marinade and texture as rib meat…you
just don’t have to work as hard for the reward.
If you’re ordering a poultry dish such
as soy sauce chicken or roast duck, ask for the house hot sauce
(which is also terrific with the cuttlefish)
and some of the orange-hued sweet-sour sauce, flavored with tiny
bits of garlic and orange zest. Then move on to the soups. Some
are palate-cleansers, such
as the clam soup, which consists of nine or 10 clams (still on
the shell) in a clear, faintly clam-flavored broth topped with
a minimalist sprinkling of
chopped green onion.
Others are assertively flavored, like salted
egg with mustard green soup. Salted egg is a recurrent theme in
where it usually
to rice porridges. Here it appears whole, poached in a clear
broth thickened only with black mushroom, pieces of boiled pork
of the mildly
bitter, squash-like stem of the mustard plant.
Two hot-pots to try are beef brisket with turnip
and roast pork with fried tofu. Both come in huge clay pots, and
there is a
waiters will nod their approval as they set them down. The brisket
some bok choy and slightly caramelized turnip to cut the heaviness
of the meat, and the only reason that the dish isn’t brilliant is the relatively gristly,
fatty brisket used. Pork and fried tofu taste great together, but remember
that this is an oily, heavy dish, not something you want to order after you’ve
already loaded up with barbecue.
At lunch, try the rice plates, such as minced
beef and egg, shrimp with satay sauce or the simple, elegant roast
duck on rice. A
few of these
rather banal, though. Shredded chicken with oyster sauce on rice
is just chopped chicken in a thick gravy that contains no more
mouth-watering oyster sauce. And diced pork with corn on rice
reminds me of a TV dinner
which the three components somehow got mixed together.
Noodles in soup are all reliable, the soup part
being a salty homemade chicken broth punctuated by the noodle you’ve
ordered, such as won tons neatly pinched to order or sundry floury
noodles with the proper chewy texture.
Sam Woo is a pioneer, probably the harbinger
of more good things to come in central Orange County. It’s
a Sam World after all.
Sam Woo B.B.Q. is inexpensive to moderate.
Barbeque is $4.25
to $11.95. Soups are $4.50. Hot pots are $5.95 to $7.50. Chinese
rice plates are
$4.25 to $8.95.
- Max Jacobson
Los Angeles Times
Orange County Live