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Photo by Jessica CalkinsI once had lunch at Costa Mesa's Sam Woo Seafood Bistro as a last resort. It's supposed to feature tasty Chinese cuisine, but the food and atmosphere there is . . . different. The ambience is relaxing, not like the clanging cacophony of a real Chinese joint. The food isn't bad, but it is deceitful. The orange chicken and chow mein taste like boxes of grease, while such American faves as kung pao, lemon and cashew-nut chicken host a superficial tang about as authentically Chinese as Panda Express. Flavor is foreign here, which is tragic because that's not what Chinese is about.
Fifteen minutes away at Sam Woo's Irvine branch, another story unfolds. The two eateries here (a seafood joint and accompanying barbecue bar) are always hectic as hungry, knowing Chinese pull up to consume some of the most authentic—and, therefore, best—Chinese eats in the county.
Same company, same restaurant, ostensibly same cuisine—vastly different experiences.
15333 Culver Drive
Irvine, CA 92604
Michael Chow, a manager at Sam Woo in Irvine, says his restaurant is a "a fast-paced environment with quick and simple food prepared fresh on the spot. We're geared more toward Asian clients here."
I can attest to that. I've been eating at Sam Woo's Irvine restaurants for as long as I can remember because the recipes come straight from the Hong Kong cookbook. Consider the semiotics of the place—the division of the restaurant between sea and land, the display of dangling barbecued ducks, chickens, octopuses and Chinese sausages. This is Chinese.
On the barbecue side, it's best to begin with the West Lake beef soup. It's served in a scalding, slightly thick broth that doesn't detract from the tenderness of the mixed meats. Those meats are cut fresh every morning and possess the distinctive grilled-but-not-charred taste that distinguishes Chinese barbecue from all others. Make sure to dunk your choice of animal in the notoriously potent ginger sauce.
On the ocean side, highlights include garlic shrimp and a sautéed-seafood offering that looks like a bird's nest. My favorite is a deep-fried fish fillet—fresh pieces of fish in a tangy batter and smothered with a creamy corn dressing that resembles cream-of-corn. Instead of the greasy/crunchy of American Chinese takeout, you get fish of surprising delicacy. Spicy, salted squid, meanwhile, fuses savory fried squid with an explosive dash of Sam Woo's secret seasoning.
Sam Woo's Irvine chefs create two to three new dishes each month to ensure that customers become regulars who don't burn out. It's hardly necessary.
My family alternates between the Irvine locales because the prices are reasonable, the service quick, and, as my father says, "They have the right taste for a lot of Hong Kong people."
Which is why we don't end up in Costa Mesa.
"The Costa Mesa food is prepared more for Americans," said Leonard Huyen, another Irvine manager. "Americans like stronger taste in their food, and lots of sugar is added. That makes for a vastly different taste."
SAM WOO BARBECUE & SEAFOOD RESTAURANT, LOCATED AT 15333 CULVER DR., STE. 720, IRVINE, IS OPEN DAILY, 10 A.M.-10 P.M. BARBECUE: (949) 262-0888; SEAFOOD RESTAURANT, (949) 262-0688. FULL BAR IN SEAFOOD RESTAURANT. DINNER FOR TWO, $16-$30, FOOD ONLY. BARBECUE: CASH ONLY; SEAFOOD RESTAURANT, ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.