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Photo by Matt OttoSalted soymilk isn't the most attractive breakfast. Neither solid nor liquid, it's a clumpy porridge of oatmeal and herbs. The orange hue comes from the dried shrimp, soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar and pork flakes that mingle and form a kind of oil slick on the surface. You sip it up quick, without a spoon, as you would a bottle of Gatorade after a pickup game, and occasionally stir it with an oily cruller that looks like a Chinese churro. Definitely not what the Quakers envisioned.
Salted soymilk is the ham and eggs of northern China but only became readily available in Orange County eateries in the late 1990s. That's when new waves of immigrants transformed two Irvine shopping plazas into mini-Chinatowns packed with restaurants, bakeries, banks and CD stores hawking cheesy, whiny Canto-pop. The population is so big—there's a reason some people call UCI the "University of Chinese Immigrants"—that many Chinese restaurants specialize in regional cuisine to ensure steady crowds.
Upon this segregated landscape stands A & J Restaurant, a bustling café that's part of a massive Beijing-based chain known for fast, hot, cheap, delicious food. And it serves an almost exclusively Chinese clientele—the next non-Chinese customer I see here will probably be the fifth ever. Though there's an English menu available, most people mark their orders on a sheet that resembles a parking ticket in Mandarin. The waitresses chop up their English syntax like scallions, and their service can be brusque at times. But work through your American apprehension: Chinese diners are notoriously fickle customers, so the fact that A & J is crowded from morning to night is a good sign.
A & J (the Chinese name actually translates into "Half-Acre Garden") represents a northern-Chinese-style diet. It's heavy on wheat-based entrées, scalding soups, and lots of meat and heat. Bowls of mustard and hot sauce anchor each table, and most customers empty the containers by the end of the meal; they slather the stuff over rice, over vegetables, over soup—especially over soup: most customers spend their time here bent over tables, heads lowered with noodles the length of beards hanging from their mouths. These fresh noodles aren't stringy chow mein; they're as sturdy as rope and two pinkies wide, floating in a hot, fragrant broth thick with crispy pork chop mixed with beef; you might even find some gooey beef tendons.
Other dishes are meaty, fried, spicy—or all of the above. The cold noodles in hot and sour sauce are the ultimate palate gauntlet—chilled noodles served in a cold broth spiked with a sauce that alternates between spicy and lemony. Duck is smoked until crispy; the pork dishes retain a thin layer of fat for maximum flavor.
The best way to eat at A & J Restaurant is family style. Share with others a plate of pan-fried pork dumplings (about the size of stogies and delicately crisp) and the thousand-layer pancake, a doughy mess with a fried crust but a soft, pliable center crammed with meats and veggies. Hate sharing? A strictly solitary affair is the substantial steamed pork bun, which you're supposed to place in your mouth all at once—the better to allow the fragrant pool of scalding soup inside to cascade into your mouth.
But it's the salted soymilk that I find really remarkable—pungent, oily, viscous, pretty funky, honestly. Add fish heads—optional—because, at this point, what could it hurt?
A & J RESTAURANT, 14805 JEFFREY RD., STE. D, IRVINE, (949) 786-3585. CALL FOR HOURS. DINNER FOR TWO, $8-$40, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.