Photo by Amy TheligThe Cantonese social custom of a late-morning weekend brunch with tea and savory snacks is less a peaceful dining experience than the culinary equivalent of NASCAR. This is dim sum, baby: women and men ferrying steam carts groaning with pastries through narrow aisles. Customers flagging down said servers, pointing at and gobbling up the objects of their desires from those carts. The din and clatter of shouts and plates and the occasional collision of carts. About every five minutes, another phalanx of women and men zooms out of the kitchen, another table empties of eaters, and another hostess seats another group of dozens who have waited impatiently for their brunch of bedlam.
There are no quiet moments during dim sum hour, and at Irvine China Garden, the pandemonium is such that the waiting line extends to the parking lot. But people wait. Irvine's sizable Chinese community fills the place every weekend, passing on such Orange County dim sum standbys as Sam Woo and Dragon Phoenix in favor of the county's best. It's not just the quality of the food—China Garden is in one of Irvine's two Chinatowns, and many families visit the nearby bakeries, banks and supermarkets after a meal. But the main attraction is that chaos, that racket, that madness that makes for a true dim sum experience.
It starts the moment you're seated in one of China Garden's Aztec calendar-wide tables: waitresses approach you with a cart. They want you to gorge immediately, but pace yourself: the visits will not cease, the goodness will not end. Do beware of those with only a dish or two left on their trays or carts—the dim sum, by then, is probably cold. Instead, get the attention of the ladies fully loaded with the freshest offerings from the kitchen. And start with the buns. Cha shu bao, filled with sweet red barbecued pork, perfectly foils the steaming cup of the sharp house oolong tea. So does the steamed chicken bun, a light, chewy thing filled with ground chicken meat, ginger and herbs. Small dishes of red chile paste and spicy Chinese mustard sit on every table to give spicy contrast to the savory sweetness of these mild, bready buns.
Once you're done with buns, the dumplings lady arrives with gow. Ha gow, translucent masses with rice-paper skins, burst with a pretty pink filling of shrimp pieces and a suggestion of sesame oil. Scallop gow, meanwhile, is little more than the scallop's natural mild sweetness and rice paper—a beautiful popper. A more aggressively flavored dumpling is the equivalent of a shrunken Mighty Man meal: pork, shrimp, peanut and scallions spiked with the Chinese five-alarm spice mix of cinnamon, star anise, clove, fennel seed and Sichuan peppercorn.
China Garden excels at more than just buns and dumplings in its dim sum races. Other offerings include beef short ribs braised in a spicy black-pepper-and-black-bean sauce, a fried crab ball complete with a claw sticking out of a golden orb of crabmeat and minced fish, and the delicious repast that is congee, a savory rice porridge flavored with ginger, green onions, roasted pork meat and opalescent pieces of preserved egg—Quaker Oats this ain't. As fun as it is to choose food by pointing, though, there is a regular menu as well—pass by during the week and feast on the spicy sautéed green beans flecked with red pepper flakes and about a dozen different types of beef, chicken, pork and even lamb.
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But the live tanks at the back of the room hint at China Garden's other specialty. Here, fish and clams float in their briny chambers, but the most majestic prisoners are the king crabs, their legs outspread in defiance of the tank's confines. If they're still in season, ask that the chefs cook the king crabs two ways. This means they'll steam the legs, then shock them in ice water and serve the meat on a bed of ice. The process leaves the king crab meat cooked but cold, with no other ingredients to get in the way of its sweet, delicate meat. The joints next to the body are flash fried and sauced with a hint of molasses-inflected Chinese black soy sauce, green onions and fresh red jalapeños.
The king crab can fill multitudes, and in a way, you're doing it a favor if you gesture toward their tank and rub your belly. But then a dim sum cart passes by, and the desire for king crabs vanishes as you frantically chase down that damn dumpling lady.
IRVINE CHINA GARDEN, 14825 JEFFREY RD., IRVINE, (949) 653-9988. OPEN DAILY, 11 A.M.-MIDNIGHT. BEER, WINE. DINNER FOR TWO, $15-$60, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.
VISIT PROFESSOR SALT'S BLOG AT PROFESSORSALT.BLOGSPOT.COM.