Class 302: A Course to Audit
You're sitting at an actual wooden school desk. There's a cubbyhole for stowing your books and an indentation carved at the top so your pencil doesn't roll off the edge. Above you, on a large green chalkboard are scribbled Mandarin characters and cartoons. Stapled to the walls are bright construction-paper posters and various kiddie-toy bric-a-brac. Your server wears knee-high black stockings, a pleated skirt and a green schoolgirl uniform. The meal she just dropped off is in an honest-to-goodness lunch tin. You are in Class 302, the first Orange County sequel of the hit Rowland Heights eatery that has stumbled into a previously untapped market: people who have fond memories of their Taiwanese grade-school experience and want to relive it in a restaurant.
Lines are often so thick and impenetrable you would have to assume most aren't coming to do this ironically or even just for the nostalgia. Apart from the theme, Class 302 also happens to serve good Taiwanese food in a town with more than a few good Taiwanese restaurants. Some dishes are worthy enough to make you forget those desks are really uncomfortable to sit in.
The best meals here are the simplest: The ground pork over rice should be the prerequisite course. It's one of a few items served in those oh-so-adorable lunch tins. Lift the metal lid, and the first thing you see is rousong, pig spun into fluffy cotton, along with boiled peanuts and soy-sauce-braised ground pork—all of it flavoring the rice below. Even those who aren't the product of Taipei's educational system will recognize this as the cultural equivalent of peanut butter and jelly. A bitter-melon pork-rib soup must then be the chicken noodle of the lot—a deep metal cup filled to the brim with a simple broth, a few morsels of bone-in pork and some pieces of the bitter gourd. It is one of the more comforting reminders that a good and basic soup is universal.
Though Class 302 is known more for its drinks and desserts (more on this later), the food menu still hopscotches from noodle soup to shabu shabu to fried rice to snacks such as stinky tofu and thousand-year-old eggs; it seems to suffer from attention deficit disorder or just an insatiable desire to please. The popcorn chicken is far juicier and plumper than others I've had in Irvine, and the fried squid immediately distinguishes itself by the use of raw, sliced garlic as garnish. It offers not only a sauce-laden, chewy oyster omelet embedded with Taiwanese lettuce—an item as popular in Taiwan's night markets as corndogs are at our state fairs—but also a shrimp version, which substitutes the iron-rich slurp of oysters for the briny crunch of shrimp. A spicy beef noodle soup is a classic rendition of niu rou mian, with noodles thick and chewy and anise-scented braised beef. Though the broth is perhaps a bit more sanitized here, not as bright or as tangy as Chef Chen's or Liang's Kitchen across town, the bowl is big and generous. The oyster vermicelli is much better, lurking in a soup thickened to the point of porridge by a silky dose of cornstarch and spiked with the persistent sting of garlic.
Most people seem to gravitate toward the sizzling plates, perhaps for no other reason than they're on the first page of the menu. They particularly go for the peppercorn beef, a stir-fry whose most exciting attribute is that it sputters and steams like a locomotive for the first three minutes. After the searing metal cools, so does the reason to like the dish—although it does have a fried egg and a healthy amount of vegetables. But perhaps the reason to come at all is for the drinks and the shaved snow, the item that practically put Class 302 on the map. A separate kitchen exists for its production. Drinks are sipped from abnormally thick straws and heat-sealed in oversized, large-diameter plastic vessels two sizes too big for your car's cup-holder. Milk teas will taste more of milk than tea, so you might as well get the iced milk drinks, which can be rendered sickly sweet with honey, caramel and other sugary syrups, taking away the pretense that you wanted tea at all. It's just an excuse to suck up tapioca pearls, anyway; when you do, you'll feel the familiar thump-thump-thump as the chewy balls are propelled up the straw and pummel the back of your throat like bullets meeting Kevlar.
Do, however, make sure you have at least two other attentive pupils with you before attempting any of the shaved snow desserts. It may just be frozen milk shaved into cascading ribbons that melt upon contact, but these erupting volcanoes of pudding, red bean and fruits are all tall and formidable, a hypothermia-inducing Everest not meant for one person, but a whole study group.
This review appeared in print as "Audit This Course: Class 302 teaches you well with its grade-school theming and Taiwanese food."
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