Despite this county's bounty of regional Chinese restaurants, at which eaters can gorge on Mongolian hot pots, preserved eggs, beef dishes packed with enough chiles to warp a bridge, or enjoy a day of dim sum served by carts that never stop and change goodies every five minutes—despite all this, sometimes I just want orange chicken.
I don't give a damn about the authenticity games—I fell in love with the dish in high school, adore each nugget's crunchy skin and reddish hue, all bathed in a treacly sauce that seems more starch-derived than anything citrus. So every couple of months, I used to trek to Hot Wok in Fullerton, where I first encountered the dish as one of the many entrées in a buffet that has always been patronized more by Mexicans than any other ethnicity. It's a decades-long ritual because there's no need to seek out orange chicken anywhere else: It's the Top Ramen of Chinese food, satisfying and only satisfying at its absolute best. But that has changed after I stumbled upon Eggroll King in Huntington Beach, one of those great Chinese-American restaurants stuck in a grocery-store-anchored shopping plaza at which the clientele is made up of locals, none of whom is an Asian immigrant, and the décor is Ming Dynasty via the San Gabriel Valley.
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The orange chicken here is spectacular: fat chunks of chicken breast that remain moist even within their fried shells, that actually have a slight tang. Sure, the sauce glazed on each piece as well as its hosting plate is as thick as ketchup, but it's also spicier than it should be and includes long, gnarled dried chiles—which means it's awesome. Order the dish at lunch, when you also get a mound of white rice, the namesake eggroll (hefty, oily, steaming—and great), a bizarre wonton that seems to contain only sautéed onions, and the obligatory fortune cookie and dried noodles that you drag through Chinese mustard and sweet-and-sour sauce.
It's the orange chicken of my dreams, but Eggroll King is more than this or other Chinese-American classics. The hot braised tofu is straight out of Diamond Jamboree, fierce and filling; the house special soup is a murky cauldron of beefy glory; and the pan-fried dumplings are house-made. They're great, but I almost always stick with the orange chicken. Though it'll never become a foodie craze, that's all right: Sometimes, we just want orange chicken, hold the snobbery.
Eggroll King, www.eggrollking.com.
This column appeared in print as "Love, Chinese-American Style."