The traditional aim of a college education--to keep young people away from the temptations of the big city for a couple of years--is no longer feasible now that students have cars, but UC Irvine pays pretty homage to tradition by isolating its campus behind a game refuge, a regional park and a lot of plain grassy wilderness. Still, students must shop and dine out, so the university has incorporated the city, or a little bit of it, within the campus as the Market Place complex.
You do not expect much from restaurants with such a captive clientele, especially when the most prominent feature of the Market Place is a revolting neon sign showing a face with a clothespin over its parsnip-shaped nose, but undergraduate gross-out dining is not all there is here. There's a cute, rather cartoony restaurant named Chinatown that is better than it needs to be, even worth driving through the game refuge for.
Cute indeed. The theme is a fantasy vision of San Francisco's Chinatown, complete with street signs (which curiously seem to indicate dining rooms) and paintings of Chinatown street scenes, together with a lot of representations of dragons and firecrackers. It's a lively, enjoyable atmosphere.
Above a pretty standard semi-Szechwan menu (mushu, kno pao, Peking duck, etc.) is a specialty menu of about 20 items, all described in enthusiastic theme-restaurant prose peppered with exclamation marks. (So good! A delicious marriage of flavors! Unbelievably scrumptious! Ooh la la!) These are, on the whole, the dishes to order because they have a good deal of individuality, even if not quite as much as the eager prose suggests.
With one exception, that is. It's a dish that may not appeal to everybody, but "gunpowder scallops" thoroughly deserve their colorful name. These are crusty fried scallops in black bean sauce with peppers, and everything is a bit scorched, giving the dish an abrupt, dusty, scorchy flavor that is altogether as you would imagine a dish named for gunpowder to taste.
The rest of the dishes are notable for Americanized touches, not the usual Americanization that has been going on for the past century or so, but a sort of up-to-date, '80s-restaurant Americanization. Among the appetizers there's a pasta dish of spinach fettuccine, "warm jade pasta and scallops with Szechwan sauce."
Unfortunately, it happens to be about the least successful item on the menu (though I have heard grumbling about the chow mein), the pasta being lifeless and the sauce notable mostly for an odd, bittersweet flavor. They do much better with traditional Chinese pastas such as "spicy dumplings": mild pork filling flavored with clove (like your usual steamed pork-bun filling) in a softly chewable pasta covering that makes your teeth happy.
Still, the menu shows quite a desire to flow with the gastronomic times, to serve veal (with oyster sauce, a nice idea) and "Creole prawns a la Chinoise." This last is about as authentically Creole a dish as a lot of other restaurants in these parts are serving, but at least you know they aren't trying to claim it's authentic, and the sauce (about the sweetest here) has enough bell pepper in it to justify the reference to shrimp Creole.
Generally the style is suave, mild dishes with soft textures and unctuous, mannerly sauces. "Yunan beef" comes in an exceptionally meaty sauce with a sneaky dash of garlic and the odd floating bit of hot pepper and candied orange peel. "Firecracker lamb" doesn't suggest firecrackers at all, or even lamb (Chinese cooks seem dedicated to keeping lamb from having a lamby flavor). The meat is so tender and so heavily doused in a rich brown sauce that at first I thought there'd been a mistake and they'd brought me liver.
My favorite dish after those wild gunpowder scallops is "gold coin beef"--julienne strips of beef and red and yellow bell peppers in a slightly hot, slightly tart sauce (the menu speaks of jalapenos, but what hot peppers I found were the tiny green ones familiar in Oriental cooking). It comes with green onion pancakes, or as the menu has it, "Chinese pizza."
I don't mean to suggest that everything is oily and polite here. An item called "spicy chicken" from the regular menu (the part without exclamatory prose) has a most unusual flavor, austere and pepper hot, and "aromatic shrimp" had another odd and interesting austere-hot flavor (if the sweet-sour sauce the menu describes came with the shrimp, I couldn't tell). You find plenty of variety here.
At midday, Chinatown is rather studenty and serves fixed lunches running $4.75-$7.75. At dinner, the clientele is older and often dressed in suit and tie--probably visiting professors too--and prices for entrees are $5-$15. One thing Chinatown is quite authentic about is serving no desserts (apart from the traditional cookies; the fortune cookie prose is OK, by the way--good fortunes but not great fortunes).
CHINATOWN RESTAURANT AND BAR
4139 Campus Drive, Irvine
Open for lunch and dinner daily. MasterCard and Visa accepted.