The Raw and the Cooked

Photo by Jeanne RiceOutsiders would never guess it, but Irvine is a teeming hotbed of excellent Chinese and Japanese restaurants. The city's growing Asian subculture is erupting in the master-planned mainstream with some damn fine food. And all I can say is . . . yum.

While it's no Little Saigon, Culver Plaza on Irvine's west side near the Tustin blimp hangars is the epicenter of this Asian influence—its very Seoul, you might say. Or perhaps its Beijing—for, in fact, the retail center somewhat resembles a mini-Chinatown, with Chinese banks, stores and one of the county's very best restaurants—Sam Woo (the original OC location, no less). The heart of this center, though, is the supermarket 99 Ranch Market, which just may be one of the city's most interesting cultural artifacts.

If you're picturing a Ralphs with a wider selection of soy sauces, you don't really understand what 99 Ranch Market is all about. Sure, there's a whole aisle of soy sauces and cooking oils and about 350 kinds of ramen, but what's so cool about this place is how very un-Irvine it is. I'm certain Don Bren never pictured gooey rock cod heads laid out like fine cuts of steak in an Irvine supermarket. But there they are. You can get that gooey rock cod head here, along with live catfish, sea bass, crabs and lobster. As a fish market, this place can't be beat, as the coolers lined with freshly dressed bonito, snapper and yellowtail bear out. How fresh? I saw a team of butchers chopping squirming fish into filets and other parts and laying them out for waiting customers. Just down the way, another crew of butchers sectioned off chunks of beef on a whizzing band saw. You don't get much fresher than that.

Still, seeing where your food comes from can dampen the appetite a bit. This comes to mind whenever I stop at the dish-and-dash restaurant counter by the front entrance. The urge is strong to order only a pound of steamed rice for 2 bucks, especially when staring at the baked pig skull they keep in the glass counter that also holds the whole roast ducks and chickens. But this food is just too good to tune out.

As dish-and-dash places go, the one at 99 Ranch Market is what a Caltech graduate degree is to science education—the top of the line. Great steaming pans are filled with the foods you don't find at Chinese chains: Szechwan eggplant, bitter melon with pork, and something called beef drop flank with brown sauce. Trust me, you will not go hungry with these choices, all of which come with rice for under $5.

I pull a Pavlov over the roasted and barbecued meats. For $4, I get a Claim Jumper-sized portion of barbecue pork over a mound of rice. For a buck more, I can add morsels of roast duck—difficult to eat because of the bone and thick skin I pick off, but the sweet meat is truly a prize worth savoring. The barbecue pork, with its sweet-and-sour glaze, is equally enchanting. The combination of these two makes for an exceptional, inexpensive meal. And because I can do these things, I usually pick up a half-pound of the meatiest, most delectable chicken wings on this or any other continent for $2.50.

Ordering can be tough—some of the counter workers don't speak English—but for $5 to $7, you can eat like royalty. If you appreciate food in both its raw and cooked form, regular visits to 99 Ranch Market remind you that there's more than the master-planned way to eat.

99 Ranch Market, located at 15333 Culver Dr., Irvine, is open daily, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. (949) 651-8899.

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