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You Got Your Tapas In My Chinese Food!
While the gimmicky name isn’t entirely accurate, the Northern Chinese fare at Asian Tapas is utterly delectable
There seem to be only a few ways to name a Chinese restaurant. The first: Just call it the way it sounds in Chinese (think Sam Woo). The second is to take a stock Chinese icon—“Jade,” “Dragon” or “Panda”—and pair it with one of the following three words: “Palace” to convey grandness, “Garden” if you’re trying to be modest, or “Kitchen” if your place really isn’t very big.
Or you could buck the trend and follow the example of the owners of Asian Tapas. The new eatery is located in the Woodbury neighborhood of Irvine—an area that abuts the borders of the old El Toro marine base and is as far away as you can get from the ready pool of Chinese customers who shop at the 99 Ranch Market on Jeffrey or the wall-to-wall Asian-ness of Diamond Jamboree.
The store is wedged between a Panera Bread and the Counter in a master-planned Irvine Co. shopping center. So the choice in naming it “Asian Tapas” makes sense. It’s different but accessible, vague but specific. And so far, it’s working.
Only weeks old, the place is already routinely turning curious looky-loos into satisfied diners. But then there are those who see through the ruse of the name. They know that Asian Tapas is owned by the same family who started Tri Village in Irvine and sold it three years ago. They know that, despite the gimmicky name and odd way the menu is arranged to fit the tapas theme, the food is prepared in the classic Northern Chinese style by chefs who know how to do it right.
You’ll see these insiders gobbling thousand-year-old egg cut in generous quarters—its yolk bluish, the albumen as clear as aspic—atop chilled, silken tofu blocks slathered in a salty brown sauce and garnished with scallions and bonito flakes. They’ll also slurp niu rou mien, otherwise known here as beef noodle soup, with a dark-as-tea broth redolent of star anise, bobbing buoys of soft, tendon-y meat, and thick noodles so resilient they could be used to strap down furniture in the bed of a pickup truck.
Though it’s one of the items labeled as a tapa, the scallion pancakes are all Chinese and perfectly prepared: buttery, brown triangles of an enduring and greaseless crispness, flaky like a fine French croissant, and as pliant as a freshly pressed flour tortilla. Others relegated to the same list include the banquet staple walnut shrimp, which, unlike lesser versions, is not overburdened with mayo. Moreover, each prawn is inexplicably crispy both inside and out—easily the best I’ve ever had. Flanking it are walnuts so well-roasted a single bite pulverizes them to powder. This is a garnish so good they actually offer it as a dish on its own.
Now, the deep-fried scallops wrapped in maple bacon and salt-and-pepper-dusted, deep-fried eggplant tapas do look like actual tapas. (If you’re not actually from Madrid. And if you squint a little.) The lettuce cups that seem to appeal to the P.F. Chang’s crowd? Not so much. They taste great, though, and are offered in your choice of minced chicken, pork or vegetarian.
Before long, you’ll begin to look past the name and the whole tapas thing and see it only as a well-run establishment. The owner actually cares enough to ask you what you think of the food. The kitchen, which takes up half the space, is separated from the dining room by glass panes so you can see the inner workings, like the gears of a transparent clock.
Once you’ve settled comfortably into it all and come to the realization that great Chinese fare can be had outside of Irvine’s Chinese enclaves, you’ll revel in its simpler dishes, such as the oily-but-good Taiwanese lettuce stir fry; the homey steamed tofu stuffed with pork; the peanut-y dan dan noodles; and the obscenely enormous fried pork chop served with a hard-boiled, soy-sauce egg, tofu and ground-meat dribbled rice.
Eventually, you’ll drop all pretense and order the specially prepared Peking duck, which requires 24-hour advance notice and a few other details of planning, like whether you want the bones to be cooked down into a soup. And no, you can’t get it with sliced manchego cheese on the side.
Asian Tapas, 6380 Irvine Blvd., Irvine, (949) 651-8999; www.asian-tapas.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.- 3 p.m. & 5-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $15-$30, food only. Beer, wine, sake, shochu and cocktails.