If it's true that Taiwanese cuisine is “disproportionately popular” in California, Irvine has to be the epicenter of that popularity. In OC's unofficial Taiwan Town, there are more Taiwanese eateries than there are McDonald's and Taco Bells combined.
What follows (in alphabetical order) is this humble writer's picks of the 10 most essential Taiwanese joints in Irvine (and one in Costa Mesa that one has to include because it's called Din Tai Fung).
There are, of course, many more that are worthy. Put in your favorites in a comment, will you?
There may be other 85°C's in OC these days, but the crowds at the first U.S. location in Irvine hasn't changed since day one. The constant turnover guarantees that no item stays un-bought longer than a few minutes. Stocks are continually replenished and this fact makes every item crackle at its most optimal, which, in turn, brings in even more customers. It's a self-feeding cycle of freshness. Sometimes, what you eat is only seconds removed from the oven. When you pluck coffee bread from the arms of an employee carrying out a tray from the kitchen, its fluffy insides will billow java-perfumed steam. It's likely the whole tray will sell out soon after. Lesser bakeries would revert to boring, easy-to-churn-out standards to keep up with this kind of demand, but 85°C's popularity seems to only embolden its resolve and spur its creativity. Every hour yields something new.
A&J is the Methuselah of Irvine's Taiwanese joints. It's cash-only, always packed and offers a broad swath of solid Taiwanese dishes that comforts your soul as well as your budget. The pan-fried beef buns spurt hot juice, the scallion pancakes sport a hundred layers, and the wontons drown in a flavor-packed red chili oil. But what people come for here are the bowls of niu rou mian (beef noodle soup), with hunks of dark, softly melting simmered beef in a dark soup and plenty of homemade egg noodles to slurp in between sips–it's as essential a dish to a Taiwanese person as pho is to a Vietnamese one.
If you're ready for it, get the House Special, which stars stinky tofu. Otherwise, try the other hot pots, such as the lamb–a revelation, even if it does seem as though it's shabu shabu for the lazy. Everything you want and need–veggies, protein and a freshly cracked egg–is there, already cooked, to be picked off one-by-one; dipped into chile oil, garlic soy or a garlic chile paste that's more salty than spicy; then eaten with rice. And then there's the broth, a simmering liquid that's to be sipped by a shallow ladle. The brew gets more complex the more the liquid reduces. The thinly sliced lamb melts into it, adding its own unique gamy stink; the egg poaches into amoeba-shaped ovals; and the Chinese pickled greens perk up the in-between bites. There's also a beef hot pot, which has more complex spicing and corn on the cob. The seafood hot pot features peel-and-eat shrimp, while a kimchi hot pot has sliced pork. The curry-heads flock to a fish ball soup so potent of curry power it'd make an Indian wince. The place has gotten so popular even among the non-Taiwanese Asians in Irvine that they opened another one just a few doors down.
You're sitting in a wooden school desk. There's a cubbyhole for stowing your books and an indentation carved at the top so that your pencil doesn't roll off the edge. Above you, on a large green chalkboard are scribbled Mandarin characters and cartoons. Bright construction-paper posters and various kiddie-toy bric-a-brac are stapled to the walls. Your server wears knee-high black stockings, a pleated skirt and a green schoolgirl uniform. The meal she just dropped off is in an honest-to-goodness lunch tin. Lift the metal lid, and the first thing you see is rousong, pig spun into fluffy cotton, along with boiled peanuts and soy-sauce-braised ground pork–all of it flavoring the rice below. Even those who aren't the product of Taipei's educational system will recognize this as the cultural equivalent of peanut butter and jelly. This Class 302 is the first Orange County sequel of the hit Rowland Heights eatery that has stumbled into a previously untapped market: people who have fond memories of their Taiwanese grade-school experience and want to relive it in a restaurant.
When South Coast Plaza's management enticed Din Tai Fung to open at the mall, they knew it would attract its huge fan-base, some of whom belong to a growing class of affluent Chinese spenders (most of whom live in Costa Mesa-adjacent Irvine). In the new Riviera, the rich don't eat caviar; they eat dumplings — these dumplings. And what's a better waiting area for those Din Tai Fung-loving whales than a mall with thousand-dollar purses and Jimmy Choo shoes for sale. Din Tai Fung isn't even an expensive restaurant by South Coast Plaza standards. But in the Asian world, Din Tai Fung has as sterling a reputation as Louis Vuitton. The good news is the dumplings are just as good here as they are at the Arcadia branch — the skin thinner, more delicate and elastic than those at Mei Long Village and Mama Lu's, two of the most venerable Monterey Park xiaolongbao purveyors. And because Din Tai Fung is known for its consistency as much as its lines, the oil-blanched green beans are still crisp-tender and the pickled cucumbers garlicky and brisk. The pork chop fried rice is particularly perfect, a treatise on the clean, simple flavors that are hallmarks of Taiwanese cooking.
At Four Sea Restaurant, a Taiwanese breakfast spot in Irvine, you must order the thing everyone gets: the dogbone-shaped, golden, deep-fried cruller called “you tiao” and the hot soy milk. This pairing is the doughnuts and coffee, the cereal and milk, if you will, of the Taiwanese-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.
There are two things that Guppy House is known for: the ridiculously portioned mounds of shaved snow served in punch bowls and the brick toast, the best of which is covered in warm chocolate, drizzled with caramel and sweetened condensed milk. But you can and should also have the pork chop noodles swimming in a broth hot enough to burn a hole through your tongue. The fried pork chop has an unnatural homogeneity, not a trace of sinew or fat or gristle in a meat tender, thin, covered in crispy batter and flavored deep with a tangy, sweet Chinese wine marinade.
You need to try the tofu and thousand-year-old egg. Together they form pidan doufu, as classic a combination as PB and J, but way better than that. It's served chilled, so it's cooling, almost spine-tinglingly so. It's also refreshing, the kind of snack that you want during a heat wave. Or order the wonderful fried pork chop rice, where the rice is sprinkled with soy-stewed pork and the pork chop is thin and crisp. Whatever you do, do not incorrectly assume I-Tea is just a boba tea joint, because it isn't just that–it is one of the best and most consistent home-style Taiwanese restaurants in Irvine.
Popcorn Chicken doesn't serve just those spice-dusted morsels of fried poultry you chomp in between sips of boba milk tea. The popcorn chicken is just a springboard to all manner of fried things the restaurant has behind its glass display case–things that include calamari hoops, fish, yam fries, fish cake, but also good ol' corn dogs. If you want chicken, you can have just about every part–leg, skin, wing, butt, gizzard, heart, cartilage–some already skewered on bamboo sticks, the rest eaten by spearing them with one. To the Taipei transplant, these are snacks and quick bites common Taiwan's lively night markets, but Popcorn Chicken is essentially the equivalent of a county fair vendor like Chicken Charlie setting up a permanent, year-round shop. You could gorge yourself on all these items, ordering them by bubbling them in on a ScanTron sheet like you're taking a junior high pop quiz, but the thing you want to eat here is the pork chop rice. This may just be the finest pork chop rice in Irvine–a town not lacking in pork chop rice or Taiwanese joints that serve it.
15333 Culver Dr #420, Irvine CA 92604
For less than $8, Yu's will pack on a three-item movable feast into groaning foam containers. The place is about instant gratification and not paying much for it. Most everything you want to eat is ready-made, but all of it fresh, and with that mom-cooked flavor and character. The cold dishes are presented in deep platters; the hot ones in chafing trays. This is not Panda Express. There is no Orange Chicken or even Kung Pao. Instead there is chicken mousse wrapped in deep fried tofu skin. There is bone-in basil chicken in sauce-lacquered pieces you have to navigate carefully with your teeth to eat. And soy-simmered minced pork, the kind that you top rice with. And mapo tofu that harbors stinging hot peppers hiding between the custardy curds. Order the latter, and you'll think they're making a mistake. The ladle the stuff into a quart-sized container until it's practically full. Any place else would have slopped it on into the same foam container as the rice. Not here. They are intent on giving you more than you expected and paid for. The place isn't just the cheapest Chinese/Taiwanese take out around; it's the best of the cheapest.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.