Wei Shian: A Noodle By Any Other Name
If you happen to find yourself slurping braised beef noodle soup in Irvine, you're likely in a Taiwanese restaurant. The big names in town—A & J, Lao Dong, Chef Hung—are all Taiwanese. And each claim to serve the best bowl of niu rou mian, which is to Taiwan what pho is to Vietnam. It's a concoction that starts with a sugary, spice-laden dark beef broth capable of being a meal unto itself, poured over thick noodles and with plenty of the now-falling-apart chunks of meat to nibble between sips.
The dish is as nourishing as amniotic fluid, and seemingly a requirement on all restaurant menus at the 99 Ranch-anchored plaza on the corner of Walnut Street and Jeffrey Road in Irvine. You can get beef noodle soup even at 101 Noodle Express, which is actually a Shandong cuisine specialist. And now, a few doors down, where Liang's Kitchen used to simmer its own beef noodle soup, the new Wei Shian Noodles does fine bowls of its own.
You should know that Wei Shian is not Taiwanese either. The dead giveaway is that one of the three beef noodle soups offered here is labeled "hot spicy." And when you order it, you discover that the surface of the broth is covered in a layer of chile red oil slick. The realization that Wei Shian is a Szechuanese joint comes about the same time you're dabbing your forehead of sweat and chugging your third glass of water to soothe your now-throbbing throat.
Even if you opt for the two other non-spicy beef noodle soups—which start with the same anise-scented, clear base broth—you'll notice that most popular items here use prodigious amounts of chile oil. There's a pork dish constructed at the "cold table" of appetizers next to the register that finds strips of boiled pork belly doused in a mixture of that ambrosial chile oil. Bits of garlic and soy sauce make a dressing that magically cuts through the richness.
But perhaps the best Szechuan dish is the dan dan mian, a bowl of noodles served dry save for a drizzling of an oily paste made with pulverized chiles and peppers. You toss the noodles around the bowl to coat every strand with that flavorful muck until you end up with what looks like a carbonara that went through the pits of hell. As you eat, your lips begin to numb, your eyes start to weep, but you're hooked. You can't stop devouring this nearly caustic and oily pasta, your tender insides be damned.
There are some dishes to avoid. The ma po tofu is rather unpleasant—throat-constricting for no good reason. And if you're considering a vegetable dish, you're better off with the sautéed green beans than the bok choy. The bok choy happens to be the mildest thing you can have at Wei Shian, but it's also the most boring. The green beans are, at least, oil-blanched to crinkle their skins, then tossed in a wok to absorb the flavors of rice wine, garlic and other aromatics.
You should not, however, leave Wei Shian without trying one of the pan-fried pie cakes. A pie cake is essentially an oversize pot sticker pressed flat on the griddle to a disk as big as a drink coaster and as thick as a hockey puck. Since the doughy dumpling skin is seared to a crispy golden brown on both sides, it looks more like Korean hotteok, something you order from a street vendor for breakfast or a snack. If they weren't so scalding hot and bursting juice and steam, you could conceivably eat the pie cakes with your hands. The best filling is a combination of chicken, pork and shrimp that springs back at you when your teeth breach the crispy outer cocoon. Actual dumplings in bite-size purses are also available either boiled or pan-fried with just the bottoms browned. But ordering them seems pointless after you've tried the pie cakes. And since an order of pie cake comes with four, and is enough for two meals, you needn't bother with any other dumpling dish.
Those who haven't figured out that Wei Shian is not Taiwanese by now will find out the minute they order the xiao long bao. These aren't the soup-filled dumplings Din Tai Fung calls xiao long bao, but rather actual steamed buns, with a fluffy bread surrounding a ground-pork filling similar to the one used for the pie cake. You get eight per order, each the size of a slider and just as filling. There's also a variant that's described as having a "Peking flavor." This one has the meat finely minced, then cooked loosely in a brown sauce with an alcoholic twang that's decidedly not Taiwanese. Ah, Irvine . . .
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