Pith On Your Vegetables

Photo by Jeanne RiceDo Asians, I wonder, judge Euro-cuisine restaurants by the number of white people seated in them? I ask this because I will admit to the stereotypical white guy response of assuming an Asian restaurant must be good just because there are a lot of Asians eating in it. They're Asian, aren't they? They ought to know what the food should taste like, just like all those Anglos at Arby's and Norm's must know a good thing, right?

On a recent crowded night at Irvine's S.W. Seafood & BBQ restaurant, my party comprised the only round-eyes in the place, unless you counted the listless orange-and-white fish staring at us from tanks abutting our table. They were all facing us, even the one that was bobbing sort of sideways there. I don't know what kind of fish they were, aside from doleful.

People who complain that there's no variety in Irvine should check out the S.W. menu, which has 230 items on it, joined by the Chef's Special menu with yet another 98 items. And along with more familiar dishes, the choices include fish maw soup, pork blood and pig skin with green leek, sauted bamboo pith over double vegetables, intestine with pickled vegetables, beef offals with turnip hot pot, and a dish that I can only hope was not a typo: general chaos chicken.

With so many items, maybe it was just the luck of the draw that none of the five dishes the four of us ordered made any of us happy. The fried items uniformly tasted like they'd been in oil that too many of the 327 other items had already stepped through. The barbecued meats, ordered in a hot pot, were too gooey to eat by hand and too bony and insubstantial to do much of anything else with. The vegetables were indifferently prepared, and there is perhaps a good reason why you do not often see bamboo pith on a menu.

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Mayhap you've wondered, "What ith thih pith I've heard about, constituent of both helmets and the noble human character?" Well, it is the spongy stuff inside the branches of vascular plants. The bamboo pith topping our broccoli and carrots was indeed spongy, permeated with a thick, corn-starchy jell. That was my and my chow mates' chief complaint about the food: much of it—including the honey-glazed walnut shrimp, the sweet-and-pungent shrimp and the barbecue—was wearing a heavier coat than one looks for in summer fare. (More than one of us felt there was MSG in our non-MSG order, as well.)

The best of the lot we ordered was the seafood with black pepper on a sizzling platter, with scallops, shrimp, squid, krab—with a K—and probably the brother of one of the fish watching us, sauted with green bell peppers and onions. It was certainly sizzling and laden with ground black pepper, though it didn't quite earn the hot-and-spicy star the menu grants it.

I gave S.W. another try the following day and was no more impressed. The service on both occasions bordered on brusque. The fish balls in soup was another salute to gluten, and the taste was sufficient to frighten me off from ordering any of the menu's more esoteric items (and your Jimmy don't do organ meats, anyway).

Instead, I aimed for safety and had the kung pao sam yan, a staple of mine at other Chinese restaurants. Here, it landed alongside the sizzling platter in the "It's All Right, I Guess" category.

Though I didn't especially like anything at S.W., I would not dissuade you from trying the place. It has been well-reviewed elsewhere, and it was full of diners both times I ate there. If you're adventurous in your eating, you come to accept that things aren't an adventure if they always conform to your expectations. I've got respect for any place that has such a varied and unusual menu in Irvine. It takes guts—literally, I suppose—to offer 328 dishes in a city that only seems to allow five shades of paint, and somewhere in that menu, there must be something even a crabapple like me would love. You can let me know when you find it.

S.W. Seafood & BBQ, located at 5406 Walnut Ave., Irvine, is open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (949) 262-0128. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $20-$50, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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