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RESTAURANT REVIEWS

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 and Monterey Park. And, incidentally, 10 Sam Woo Restaurants call these places home.

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 place is 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, congee soups, 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 and liqueurs) 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 various fish, ranging from rock cod to catfish. Now, being able to choose a live lobster isn’t anything new, but choosing the fish you want turned into an elaborate dish is.

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 for inspection. This can 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. Sam Woo 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 stomach turning.

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 jellyfish. It’s that good. The sea cucumber has a subtle flavor, but its consistency of frozen, slightly crunchy gelatin may not appeal to many.

One last word about the barbecue selections: Some of them are as fine as you will find, especially the roast duck and chicken in soy sauce. The 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 being too sweet becomes a 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 onion.

After all, you can get kung pao chicken anywhere.

-Tom Vasich
OC Metro
Metro Dining
January 15, 1995


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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