Orange County doesn't have the San Gabriel Valley, lined end-to-end with great Chinese restaurants. We do, however, have Irvine, which is where most of these recommendations are, and where you can eat well from just about any region of China.
As with all these sorts of lists, there will be the inevitable bruised egos and hurt feelings, so when you discover your favorite didn't make the list, add it to the comments for posterity!
10. Formosa Chinese Restaurant
Who knew a cafe inside a Quality Inn & Suites could be… good? Ignore most of the menu; Formosa Cafe, as its name implies, is a Taiwanese eatery. While you may not be able to read the Chinese-only specials on the whiteboard on the wall, a little polite insistence will lead you to the back page of the menu, where you'll find beef noodles, Taiwanese breakfasts, and the best san bei ji (three cup chicken) in Orange County.
23702 Rockfield Blvd., Lake Forest; 949-458-7125; no website.
9. 3-6-9 Shanghai
Everyone goes to 3-6-9 Shanghai for the xiao long bao, the steamed dumplings with the soup magically tucked inside. To order only these does a disservice to the other Eastern Chinese items on the menu, like crab (sadly, not hairy crab) in garlic sauce, lion's head meatballs, and braised pork belly.
613 N. Euclid St., Anaheim; 714-635-8369; no website.
8. Trieu Chau
It may be spelled the Vietnamese way, but Trieu Chau is mostly a Chiu Chow Chinese restaurant, a subset of southern Chinese food renowned for its beautifully clean flavors. It's a tiny place, so you may need to share your table with strangers as you slurp their amazing noodles. Get there early; they close at 5 p.m. and the lines start to get ridiculous earlier than you'd think.
4401 W. 1st St., Santa Ana; 714-775-1536; no website.
7. Ho Toy's
It'd be unfair to ignore all the steam-tray Chinese-American places in a list of great Chinese places, which means orange chicken. Ho Toy's, though it's a shady-looking takeout stall wedged next to a downmarket Albertsons, has the best orange chicken in Orange County. Their other items are similarly better than the chains bearing that smirking Asian bear, and the portions are enormous. Take-out only, though: there's exactly one table with two seats.
734 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim; 714-956-8430; no website.
6. Capital Seafood
Dim sum by day, fresh Cantonese seafood by night. You may have to go around more than one wedding banquet, but it's worth it. It might be shiny and have branches in the so-fancy Diamond Jamboree (good luck parking) and Irvine Spectrum, but the food hasn't suffered. Note: the Capital Seafood in Garden Grove is unrelated.
85 Fortune Dr. #329, Irvine; 949-788-9218; capital-seafood.com.
2700 Alton Pkwy. #127, Irvine; 949-252-8188.
5. 101 Noodle Express
Beef roll. Every single person who walks through the door orders beef roll, a flatbread with thin slices of the best roasted beef ever and plenty of cilantro. Sure, there are great dumplings on the menu, including the best pumpkin dumplings south of Koreatown, but are you sure you don't want a beef roll?
5408 Walnut Ave., Irvine; 949-654-8542; no website.
4. Mas Islamic Chinese
The restaurant may stand in a bleak industrial park on the Anaheim-Fullerton border, but that doesn't stop streams of people, observant Muslim or not, from sitting down in a huge dining room to huge lamb hot pots, hand-sliced noodles called dao xiao mian, five-spice beef with leeks and towering platters of sesame flatbreads.
601 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Anaheim; 714-446-9553; no website.
3. Asian Tapas
Tapas? Well, no, not really… Asian Tapas serves Northern Chinese snacks and dishes, some with a slightly more American bent; the scallion pancakes and the beef noodle soup are as Chinese as they come, but the great lettuce wraps are the antidote to the beige sameness of that more famous Chinese chain place.
6380 Irvine Blvd., Irvine; 949-651-8899; asian-tapas.com.
2. Chong Qing Mei Wei
Chong Qing Mei Wei–the Beautiful Flavor of Chungking–is a tiny space perched at the end of the 99 Ranch plaza at Walnut and Jeffrey, cooking up excellent, fiery, numbing Sichuan food to the hungry denizens of Irvine. Twice-cooked pork and bang bang chicken are standards, but branch out a little and try the appetizer bar, or–if you dare–huo bao yao hua, or fire-exploded kidney flowers.
5406 Walnut Ave. #C, Irvine; 949-651-8886; no website.
Tri-Village is an anomaly, a strip-mall Chinese place with a Peking duck (two hours' notice, please) that bests even the San Gabriel Valley and food that is unapologetically northern, with beef rolls wrapped up with cilantro in wheat flatbread, and assorted pancakes and pan-fried bao. Order the “5 a.m. chitterlings”–a bubbling, spicy, numbing, frankly amazing hotpot that contains tofu, green onions, and pork blood as well as pork intestines–and the owners will know you're serious.
14121 Jeffrey Rd., Irvine; 949-857-8833; no website.