By Kristine Hoang
By Ryan Ritchie
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By Edwin Goei
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A chicken-foot fetish in Fullerton
Don't mistake the "Indonesian fried rice" at California Asian Bistro in Fullerton as Indonesian. It's a great dish, but the only thing it has in common with Javanese "nasi goreng" is the fried egg they put on top. Everything else underneath the egg is a standard mound of Chinese fried rice, competently wok-tossed with flecks of tender beef and fish.
But that isn't the most glaring contradiction; that would be the sports bar they inherited from Spoons, which had long vacated the space. On a recent Friday night, despite all the bright plasma screens tuned to ESPN, that area of the restaurant was deserted.
1000 S. Harbor Blvd.
Santa Ana, CA 92704-2343
Region: Santa Ana
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Such is life for California Asian Bistro, a Chinese-run venture that earnestly tries to be all things to all people. Until recently, they had a sushi bar, which has mercifully been jettisoned, but like a sports team with its captain benched, the kitchen still dutifully doles out teriyaki and tempura combo plates—perhaps because it's easier than printing up a whole new set of menus.
Yet they haven't lost focus on what they do best: the kind of Chinese food OC doesn't have enough of. Dishes such as the black-bean-and-spare-ribs hot pot are old-school meals aimed to please the discriminating Chinese palate. That particular choice features rice cooked-to-order in a clay pot that's topped with bite-sized pieces of Chinese sausage or chicken, or fatty pork still attached to bone. When serving it, your waitress will first set the meat aside in a waiting saucer, then, with two spoons, she'll fluff the rice and season it with a pour of soy broth.
If you bring your Chinese relatives here, order the garlic string beans-they'll easily meet their approval. Oil-blanched to wither their leathery skins, the green pods are still as crisp as the moment they were plucked from the stalk. If you're Vietnamese, try the C.A.B. beef-tenderloin cubes, an approximation of bo luc lac that actually surpasses the original. Its success is due to the addition of wilted Thai basil and a wok-sear that finishes the steak to the correct degree of doneness—just shy of medium-rare.
However, as with all Chinese restaurants, there are a few clunkers. A minute spent too long in the wok made for a limp stir-fry of the sugar snap peas. And their version of honey-glazed walnut shrimp was bogged down with pasty walnuts and greasy prawns. Also, if the deep-fried whole sole fish started off crunchy, it wasn't when it got to the table, instead being completely soaked in sauce.
There are fewer pitfalls on the dim-sum menu, offered from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. At $1.79 per plate for 20 basic items-and a few bucks more for fancier fare—you can get your fill of a treat most San Gabriel Valley residents take for granted. The only difference is that orders are checked off from a sheet, not taken from a roving cart. Start with a pot of chrysanthemum tea. Sip the hot brew to cleanse the palate between bites, but balance proteins with veggies, the fried with the steamed, the savory with the sweet.
Their irresistibly named "I'm Not an Egg Roll" really is an egg roll, except it's filled with chunks of seafood. This and the fried tofu are crispy testaments to the deep-fat fryer. Both the barbecue pork buns and the plate of greens doused with a light oyster-sauce broth are worthy foils.
Others, like steamed chicken feet or spare ribs with black-bean sauce, are perfect for a gnaw-and-spit-out-the-bones kind of satisfaction. The delicacy xiao long bao (Shanghai steamed dumplings) makes an appearance, with sagging pockets full of pork and broth—the best I've had in OC.
Although the sheets of steamed rice noodles that wrap around shrimp aren't as delicate as they should be, it's still good for a hearty slurp. Same goes for the porridge, which is ladled from a bowl as big as a basketball and teems with chunks of thousand-year-old egg.
The sweet dim-sum delicacies—such as a crumbly egg-custard tart tinged as orange as a sunset and a mango pudding packed with diced pieces of the fruit—prove that California Asian Bistro is as good as a Chinese restaurant gets in Orange County, even with that sad-sack of a room they call a sports bar.
California Asian Bistro, 1000 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-7888; www.californiaasianbistro.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Dinner for two, $30-$50, food only; Dim sum for two, $10-$20. Full bar.