Four Sea's Wake-Up Call
Have you ever bitten into pickled mustard greens at 6:30 in the morning? Let me tell you: It's exhilarating. Orange juice has nothing on the gentle pungency this jade-green condiment possesses. Its purpose is the same as sauerkraut, but without the overpowering mouth-puckering sourness, yet it's still punchy enough to be a buzzing alarm clock in your mouth. You'll find it stuffed in a lot of things at the new Four Sea Restaurant in Irvine, but especially in a sandwich made from a flap of steamed-bun bread with a slice of fatty pork and a smear of coarsely ground sweetened peanuts. Momofuku's David Chang was probably inspired by such a sandwich when he created his now ubiquitously copied signature dish, but he doesn't use mustard greens—a shame because Four Sea's rendition makes you want more the following morning.
The ingredient is just one of the essential components from an array of Chinese breakfast items in which Four Sea specializes. This ain't dim sum, some long, fancy, elaborate sit-down feast that you enjoy leisurely on weekend mornings when you have time to kill. The fare Four Sea offers is more typical of an everyday morning meal in China, food sold and consumed in the same vein we Americans have Egg McMuffins and jelly doughnuts. These are bites usually cheap and often starchy, things doughy and deep-fried, baked and steamed, wrapped in omelets, embellished by maybe a little meat, all of it designed to stuff the belly for not much more than pocket change.
Before you try that sandwich I mentioned, you must order the thing everyone gets: the dogbone-shaped, golden, deep-fried cruller called you tiao and hot soy milk. This pairing is the doughnuts and coffee—the cereal and milk, if you will—of the Chinese breakfast repertoire. You can eat it however you want: Either dunk the crullers—crispy billy clubs with nothing inside but air pockets—into the thin liquid, or tear them up and toss them into the bowl, or alternate between slurping the bland tofu-ness of the milk and getting your fingers greasy from the pastry, which are called "oil sticks" for a reason. When you're ready to advance to something more elaborate (and tastier), order what's simply described as "salty soy milk," with the crullers already cut up into pieces and swimming in a brew spiked with soy sauce, scallions and other savories. You'll swear it's a real, honest-to-goodness soup, the furthest thing from the stuff sold in cartons labeled as Silk. The best part is those crullers: Soaked and soggy, they attain the texture of something meat-like, transforming the bowl into a solid meal.
As at other Chinese breakfast purveyors, Four Sea's crullers are multitasking workhorses. They're wrapped with a membrane-thin tortilla and freshly cooked omelet, then cut into chopstick-ready segments. In another dish, the cruller joins pickled mustard greens inside a plastic-wrapped "sticky rice roll," a sushi-burrito hybrid as lengthy as a sub, embedded as the crunch component along with egg and some sung (dried, fluffy pork meat spun into the consistency of cotton candy). If you're still in need of something dim sum-like, Four Sea does a very decent rendition of juicy pork dumplings simply described as "steamed buns." An order consists of 10 pork-and-broth-filled purses, their tops meticulously crimped into tiny pleats. The skin is the thinnest, most delicate of any xiao long bao I've had in Orange County and the nearest any restaurant has gotten to matching the benchmark at Arcadia's legendary Din Tai Fung.
Among the other 60 items on the menu, there are pot stickers; fried leek pockets that resemble Taco Bell's Crunchwrap Supremes; and diminutive, flaky-crusted pastries hiding red bean, egg yolk and other fillings. When you see something described as "curdled soy milk," expect silken tofu served jiggling and pristinely smooth in a wide-brimmed bowl floating in a dark, gingery sugar syrup that almost makes it flan-like in appearance. And just in case you're no stranger to the Four Sea locations in Hacienda Heights and San Gabriel, know that the Irvine store is so clean and spotless compared to those dingy, barely lit hovels that it looks like it was teleported here from a far-distant utopian future. The customer base is similar, though: typically older folks, people who can actually get up early enough to get breakfast, most of whom you'll hear slurping soy milk but barely see, since their faces are always hidden behind oldfangled newspapers.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.