Several weeks back we did a feature about late night dining here in Orange County and came to the conclusion that the scene was pretty lively.
We didn't explore its more exotic dimension, though, namely, our Asian restaurants. That's a whole story in itself.
Anyone who has ever been to Asia, with its densely populated cities and bustling street life, has marveled at the sheer numbers who dine out late there. Whether in cafes, at night markets, street stalls or behind dimly lit curtains, Asians simply love to eat in the wee hours. So you may not be surprised to learn that the Asians in Orange County are no exception.
This is a world-class area when it comes to cultural diversity, and that awareness redoubles after hours. That's when many of our Asian restaurants are at their most colorful, alive with laughter, conversation and the spirit of faraway lands.
The food in these restaurants tends to be as authentic as it gets; the operators cater to a largely native clientele and therefore do not compromise much to account for tastes.
Westerners can expect to be a minority when dining at one of these restaurants, much like being on vacation in an Asian capital. In a way, this is like visiting Asia, so think of yourself as a foreign guest. You will most likely be treated as one.
I was. In most of the following restaurants, I had so much fun I forgot I was still home. So if you find yourself in the mood for an unusual dining experience after a concert, a movie or even to liven up an otherwise unmemorable day, here's the good news: The entire Orient is yours to travel after hours, and the only visa you might need is plastic.
Choy's Restaurant. "Amazing," I heard a group of American-born Chinese (ABCs, as they call themselves) exclaim at a nearby table, "a place like this in Orange County." As a longtime fan of some of the more obscure late-night haunts in L.A.'s Chinatown, I could relate to their enthusiasm.
Because Choy's Restaurant, a boxy green room crammed with round wooden tables made even more claustrophobic by its too low, industrial drop ceiling, has the same exact feel of a big city, after-hours noodle house. The surprise here is that they cook almost everything besides noodles, on a wide-ranging, bilingual menu that offers home-style cooking at its best.
On the wall, there is a large, Chinese-language-only menu. If you can't read it, you might miss the real late-night foods Chinese love: jook, a rice porridge with a variety of toppings; you tiu , a fried cruller that is dipped in the porridge; various tripe dishes (such as menudo , for those who have had too much to drink), and vegetables such as gai lan , Chinese broccoli, or choy sum, mustard greens, heaped onto platters and topped with tangy oyster sauce.
There's actually an easy way around this problem. Just tell the waitresses you want porridge, a cruller, tripe, or Chinese vegetables; they do know that much English. Then tell them what kind of preparation you want (soup, porridge, sauteed and with what meat). That's all there is to it.
One Chinese dish not to miss is the porridge with salted egg, one of the most soothing late light meals anywhere. Choy's salted egg tastes like an exotic, overripe cheese, and just a tiny bit flavors a whole bowl of porridge or soup. Another Chinese specialty not to miss is bitter melon, a pleasantly bitter, bumpy squash, sauteed with your choice of pork, chicken or beef.
Sit at one of the simple, clean formica tables and be patient. Service here is friendly but often overextended. (Large groups of 10 or more seem to love it here.) Excellent dishes from the bilingual menu include clean tasting fried rices, pork chops sauteed in garlic and chili pepper, Chinese steak with orange peel and dried pepper, crispy fried chicken and wonderful wonton soups. Hong Kong? Who needs it.
Choy's Restaurant, 2801 W. Ball Road, Anaheim. Open Wednesday through Monday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Closed Tuesdays. Cash only. (714) 527-6848.
Captain's Place. The fun-loving Thais like to be entertained when they dine, as anyone who has ever been to Bangkok can attest. What makes Captain's Place so colorful is the live entertainment. It's almost like being in a nightclub on Bangkok's Patpong Road, full of Thais letting loose, curious Westerners and heavily painted waitresses who look slightly wearied by all the hubbub.
It's easy to spot this restaurant at night; there are always a cluster of cars surrounding it in an otherwise empty parking lot. You'll hear it too, thanks to a duo of girl singers accompanied by a noisy elecric piano, belting out hits in fluent Thai or fractured English (hey, Paul, I wanna marry ewe!). Sometimes, it might even be somebody from the audience who gets up to sing.