In the brave new Irvine, where there are more Taiwanese restaurants than there might be of any other cuisine, the pork chop rice called pai gu fan might be the most commonly eaten dish in the city. It's such a constant and essential representation of all that is homey, simple and good in Taiwanese cooking that you'd sooner find a Mexican cantina without tacos than a Taiwanese restaurant without pork chop rice.
For years, my benchmark was Nice Time Deli's version. It came with a swooping plank of hog the size of my face that was covered in a bubbled batter, then chopped into spears and served alongside a heap of rice doused with ladles of soy-stewed ground pork, wedges of tofu and a boiled egg. When Nice Time closed a couple of years ago, A&J's batterless and nearly ruddy pork chops became my new normal.
But the truth is everyone makes great pork chops in Irvine. Tea Station makes one. Even JJ Bakery's pork chop rice is exceptional. When a restaurant called Popcorn Chicken recently opened to offer Taiwanese night-market fried foods, it offered its own take on pai gu fan, complete with one of the best fried pork chops I've ever had the pleasure of eating. That even a place called Popcorn Chicken can do a wonderful pork chop didn't stop Kingchops, a Taiwanese pork chop specialist, from opening here. Unlike Kardashians, in this case, more is always better.
From the sign, it seems that Kingchops started in 1961 in Taiwan. Though I've yet to find anyone who has been to the original or even heard of it, Kingchops has built a solid reputation among pai gu fan fans in the City of Industry. I've not tried that location, but if it's anything like the Irvine branch, it has also brought the making of pork chops down to a science.
The first time I ate at Kingchops, my pork chop rice came out scarcely seconds after I ordered it. Frankly, it was too quick. But as hard as I tried to find any telltale signs that the pork chop was reheated or less than freshly cooked, it was flawless. It sat somewhere between Nice Time's and A&J's, with a barely there shimmer of batter that I don't think was meant to be particularly crunchy or even crisp. Instead, the defining characteristic of Kingchops' chop was the flavor–a pervasive sweetness probably owed to a spoonful of sugar, but mostly a lot of rice wine.
That the pork came in a separate plate underscored how capable it was of standing on its own. The pai gu fan was so good the rest of the meal seemed ho-hum by comparison. The sculpted rice dome needed more sauce from its simmered ground-pork topping to make it sing louder. And as I finished the sides of broccoli, corn nibblets and marinated bean curd, I realized I only did so because I've been conditioned to always eat my vegetables.
There were other near-misses. The cold cucumber appetizer lacked the garlicky oomph of the same dish served a few doors down at I-Tea Cafe. And the brown sauce that covered the chilled tofu with preserved egg was all salt and no depth. I'd also skip the drinks: The watered-down taro milk tea was missing both the sweetness and the malty richness I've come to expect when I order it at Tapioca Express, and the slushies–flavored with syrup, not actual fruit–tasted as artificial as Jolly Ranchers.
If you're going to add anything to your meal at Kingchops, let it be the Taiwanese meatball, a fist-sized gob of gelatinous rice-flour dough formed into a bouncy, chewy mass akin to mochi, but with minced pork and mushroom in the middle. It's drowned in a pink sauce that I'm sure involves ketchup, garlic and sugar. Or try the Zen-like simplicity of the boiled vegetable, blanched Taiwanese lettuce with its crunch intact and topped with more saucy minced pork and crispy fried shallots.
The best thing to have with your pork chop is the "dry" noodle–a bowl of boiled white strands topped with diced pickled vegetables, lots of minced pork and enough sauce to coat everything you slurp. Even better is the noodle with pork and bean paste–a stand-alone dish that you mix thoroughly to spread the thick, fragrant, black-as-tar glop and eat the same way you would Korean jajangmyeon.
But you know what Kingchops does best? The fried chicken leg–a gnarled, crispy, bone-in thigh and drumstick imbued with the same rice wine-sweetened soul as the pork chops. Your move, Popcorn Chicken!
Kingchops, 15435 Jeffrey Rd., Ste. 117, Irvine, (949) 303-5344. Open Wed.-Mon., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-9 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$30, food only. No alcohol.