The Chinese Choices
Sam Woo Restaurant is a haven for both seafood and barbecue lovers
with selections rarely found elsewhere in Orange County.
Some of America’s finest Chinese restraints
are found in the Chinese communities in Rowland Heights, Alhambra
Park. And, incidentally, 10 Sam Woo Restaurants call these places
These restraints are fundamentally different
from the ones here in Orange County, and are run more like ones
in Hong Kong, offering a vast menu that only touches
upon all that the kitchen can cook. Even if you like Chinese food, eating
at one of these restaurants will be like trying the cuisine for
the first time.
Last August, Sam Woo (the Chinese pronunciation
of characters meaning man’s
harmony with the heavens and earth) opened an Irvine location on the corner
of Culver and Irvine Center Drive. And the restaurant group’s first
foray outside of a predominately Asian community has been a winner: The
packed nearly every night and it quickly has become a magnet for the growing
Asian population of Irvine and South County.
Actually, Sam Woo is two restaurants joined
together. One is Sam Woo Barbecue, a smaller, walk-up place that
serves barbecued meats and more than 150
Chinese dishes, chow meins, hot pots, rice dishes, barbecue rice dishes,
noodles and lo mein. This one isn’t easy to miss; barbecued ducks,
chickens, suckling pigs, and squids hang from strings by the front door
and the crowds
in front of the counters always seem three deep.
Next door is Sam Woo Restaurant, the more formal
of the two. A tastefully decorated front bar (which happens to
sell potent doses of Chinese whiskey
leads into a large, well-lit dining room with stylish black chairs
and white cloth-covered tables.
The specialty here is seafood, and Sam Woo offers
diners possibly the freshest fish in Orange County. In the back
of the dining room sit
a row of both
fresh- and salt-water tanks filled with lobster, crabs, shrimp and
ranging from rock cod to catfish. Now, being able to choose a live
anything new, but choosing the fish you want turned into an elaborate
If you do order a lobster, crab or fish from
one of the tanks, heed this warning: it will be brought for your
table in a plastic bag
be unnerving to some, especially when a four-pound Maine lobster
is thrashing its talons around.
What can be more unnerving is figuring out what
to eat. If you think the menu at the barbecue joint is large, you
will be overwhelmed
by the other.
Restaurant offers dishes made from Shark’s fin, abalone, sea cucumbers,
shrimp, scallop and clams, fish, lobster and crabs, poultry, pork, beef, bean
curd and vegetables. There’s more than enough soups, chow
meins, chow funs and fried rice dishes to go around.
And added to that comes a gold covered menu
of Sam Woo’s specials, ones
such as sautéed red flower clams, sautéed conch,
crispy fried squab, marinated chicken feet and shredded beef
steak with jellyfish. The sizzling
hot pot with combinations of oysters, scallops, beefsteak and
ribs also are worth noting.
But that’s not all. The restaurant has
20 cooks in the kitchen, many of whom learned the high-pressure
art of Chinese cooking in fast-paced Hong
Kong restraints. Because of that expertise, they are pretty much
able to make anything a customer wants. The menu is a mere window
dressing to many Asian
customers who have a taste for something distinctive.
One gets the feeling Sam Woo does not cater
to more routine American tastes. Sea cucumbers, jellyfish and spicy
salted squid are not
part of the everyday
diet. And some of the items on the barbecue menu are downright
But fear not, because culinary spelunking can
be merry. For example, even people who think that adding salt to
a dish makes it exotic
will like the
It’s that good. The sea cucumber has a subtle flavor, but
its consistency of frozen, slightly crunchy gelatin may not appeal
One last word about the barbecue selections:
Some of them are as fine as you will find, especially the roast
duck and chicken
barbecued cuttle fish is rich with flavor, and the Chinese sausage
reminds of top-notch
kielbasa. The barbecue pork spare ribs are merely unbeatable.
Next door, many more conventional dishes also
are appealing. A popular one is the honey-glazed walnut shrimp,
which by not
better dish. Scallops and chicken come with exotic vegetables
and deep-fried milk
balls (don’t laugh, just dip them in sugar and enjoy) and taste even
better with a little X.O. sauce added. X.O. sauce, if you are wondering, is
one of those delicacies not listed on the menu but should be a part of the
Chinese dining experience. Its base of ground dry scallops are supplemented
by crushed red peppers and many secret herbs and spices. It’s spicy,
hot and very flavorful, even if it’s about $2.50 a tablespoon.
Vegetarians will enjoy the vegetable rolls.
Four come on a plate, and each looks like it’s wrapped in
a crepe. Inside each of them is an assortment of fresh vegetables
and mushrooms. The rolls are light with a clean taste,
and can be ordered as an appetizer for two or more.
Since there’s so much to consider at Sam Woo, here’s a final recommendation:
Choose something you never have eaten before. Try the abalone or shark’s
fin soup. Sample the salted egg and mustard greens soup. Even if you can barely
afford it, get that sautéed lobster with ginger and green
After all, you can get kung pao chicken anywhere.
January 15, 1995