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The Empire Strikes Again
Capital Seafood’s glitzy new Irvine location fits right into the sparkling-new Diamond Jamboree Plaza, but does its food measure up to the high standards of its humbler predecessors?
My fondness for the Capital Seafood Chinese restaurant mini-empire began with their branch in Garden Grove more than a decade ago. The Little Saigon hole in the wall was claustrophobic and seemed to border on unhygienic, but the food was spectacular and cheap. Lunch specials included a wicked bowl of hot-and-sour soup, all the rice you could eat, and a warm Vietnamese che dessert to cap off the meal.
A few years later, a Rowland Heights outpost debuted—the rare sequel that bested the original. It was just as cramped, but it boasted even fresher, more vibrant, more consistently cooked Chinese dishes: a whole deep-fried flounder with two kinds of dipping sauce, wok-kissed cubes of filet mignon, and shrimp encrusted with “spicy salt.”
Best of all, the lunch-special deal remained intact. Nothing cost more than $10. With most dishes hovering around the $6 mark, you could feed an entire family of four for less than $30. Because of the prices, the Rowland Heights branch attracted a faithful crowd of not just Chinese diners, but also Filipinos, Indonesians, Mexicans and Vietnamese—people (like me) who knew an unbeatable bargain when they saw one.
I’m not so sure my fellow bargain-hunters would be as enthusiastic about the new Capital Seafood at Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree Plaza. First of all, the lunch special is a no-show. There’s no complimentary bowl of soup, dessert or rice. In fact, the lunch menu consists mainly of starches. Fried rice, fried noodles, congee and rice platters dominate a list that is meant to complement what’s offered on the dim sum carts.
This is a different kind of Capital Seafood—an up-market design that looks unlike the others. Glossy, glassy and classy, it’s what Steve Wynn’s Chinese restaurant would look like if it were envisioned by Versace. Yes, it’s beautiful, tricked-out, stunning, but to me, the effect was unsettling—like reuniting with a high-school sweetheart only to discover she’s become a Vegas showgirl.
This Capital does dim sum—the Monterey Park location is the only other one that does—and, thankfully, it does it well. The dried scallop in sticky rice was one of the best I’ve ever had. Wrapped into a lotus-leaf parcel, the rice that surrounded the filling found the right balance—neither too loose nor too glutinous. The cheong fun—freshly steamed rice noodles wrapped around meat—was more pasty than delicate, but it was offered with six varieties of filling, including thinly sliced Chinese barbecued pork. Deep-fried taro balls came in a threesome that looked like they were meticulously spun from shredded wheat. I bit into a crispy cocoon, and an unctuous filling of fatty ground pork and shrimp spilled out.
Everything else was executed with a perfectionist’s eye for detail. The pork shumai were topped with orange-hued caviar for a splash of color. Squares of jiggly gelatin desserts existed in at least three pastel-hued strata. The brightness of the seaweed salad was matched by its freshness.
Impressed with the dim sum, we ordered the Salty Fish & Chicken Fried Rice and the Three Delicacy Combo Platter to round out our lunch. Though none of the other Capital Seafoods would ever dare charge $9.95 for fried rice, the serving here was enormous enough to amply feed six, leaving plenty of its disarmingly stinky preserved-fish flavor to go around as tomorrow’s leftovers.
For the combo platter, roasted duck was chopped to bony hunks, surrounding thinly sliced, red-rimmed, fat-marbled Chinese barbecued pork. But the dish’s main attraction was the crackly skin on the roasted pork—rectangular swatches of raucous crunch that rattled the skull with the noise of a thousand pork rinds bitten in unison.
The same dish is available during dinner, but by then, there are more items to try. Most, like the lobster and steamed whole fish, are labeled “market price,” which always translates to “more than you expected to pay.” But there are lower-cost alternatives. A tilapia for $12.95 is prepared in the same manner: steamed gently, with a finishing drizzle of hot oil and soy sauce, then garnished with julienned ginger and scallions.
On weeknights, Capital offers Peking duck for only $12. But despite the bird being served with all the required accouterments (pillowy steamed buns, shaved scallions, hoisin and oil-crisped tapioca crackers), the skin wasn’t properly rendered. As I chewed through the rubbery subcutaneous fat, I was already dreaming about what I would order next . . . at the Rowland Heights Capital Seafood.
Capital Seafood at 2700 Alton Pkwy., Ste. 127, Irvine, (949) 252-8188; www.csrgweb.com. Open daily, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10:30 p.m. Dim sum plates, $2.25-$4.25; lunch-menu items, $3.95-$24.95; dinner-menu items, $8-“market price.” Full bar.