10 Essential Taiwanese Restaurants in OC

Class 302's lunch tin.
Class 302's lunch tin.
Edwin Goei

If it's true that Taiwanese cuisine is "disproportionately popular" in California, Irvine has to be the epicenter of that popularity. In OC's unofficial Taiwan Town, there are more Taiwanese eateries than there are McDonald's and Taco Bells combined.

What follows (in alphabetical order) is this humble writer's picks of the 10 most essential Taiwanese joints in Irvine (and one in Costa Mesa that one has to include because it's called Din Tai Fung).

There are, of course, many more that are worthy. Put in your favorites in a comment, will you?

85°C Bakery Cafe
Queue up!
Queue up!
Edwin Goei

There may be other 85°C's in OC these days, but the crowds at the first U.S. location in Irvine hasn't changed since day one. The constant turnover guarantees that no item stays un-bought longer than a few minutes. Stocks are continually replenished and this fact makes every item crackle at its most optimal, which, in turn, brings in even more customers. It's a self-feeding cycle of freshness. Sometimes, what you eat is only seconds removed from the oven. When you pluck coffee bread from the arms of an employee carrying out a tray from the kitchen, its fluffy insides will billow java-perfumed steam. It's likely the whole tray will sell out soon after. Lesser bakeries would revert to boring, easy-to-churn-out standards to keep up with this kind of demand, but 85°C's popularity seems to only embolden its resolve and spur its creativity. Every hour yields something new.

A&J
The plating game.
The plating game.
Photo by Courtney Hamilton

A&J is the Methuselah of Irvine's Taiwanese joints. It's cash-only, always packed and offers a broad swath of solid Taiwanese dishes that comforts your soul as well as your budget. The pan-fried beef buns spurt hot juice, the scallion pancakes sport a hundred layers, and the wontons drown in a flavor-packed red chili oil. But what people come for here are the bowls of niu rou mian (beef noodle soup), with hunks of dark, softly melting simmered beef in a dark soup and plenty of homemade egg noodles to slurp in between sips--it's as essential a dish to a Taiwanese person as pho is to a Vietnamese one.

Boiling Point
Simmer shimmer.
Simmer shimmer.
Edwin Goei

If you're ready for it, get the House Special, which stars stinky tofu. Otherwise, try the other hot pots, such as the lamb--a revelation, even if it does seem as though it's shabu shabu for the lazy. Everything you want and need--veggies, protein and a freshly cracked egg--is there, already cooked, to be picked off one-by-one; dipped into chile oil, garlic soy or a garlic chile paste that's more salty than spicy; then eaten with rice. And then there's the broth, a simmering liquid that's to be sipped by a shallow ladle. The brew gets more complex the more the liquid reduces. The thinly sliced lamb melts into it, adding its own unique gamy stink; the egg poaches into amoeba-shaped ovals; and the Chinese pickled greens perk up the in-between bites. There's also a beef hot pot, which has more complex spicing and corn on the cob. The seafood hot pot features peel-and-eat shrimp, while a kimchi hot pot has sliced pork. The curry-heads flock to a fish ball soup so potent of curry power it'd make an Indian wince. The place has gotten so popular even among the non-Taiwanese Asians in Irvine that they opened another one just a few doors down.



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