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RESTAURANTS : Sam's in Irvine Woos With B.B.Q.

October 13, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

Back in the early '80s, I was a regular at a Monterey Park Chinese restaurant called Sam Woo. Later, I often ate at a nearby spinoff by the name of Same Ward, and then at still another, Sam World. (In Chinese, all three restaurants had the same name, pronounced roughly saam wo , and one suspects the owners were having a bit of fun with those quaint transcriptions.)

The original Sam Woo built a reputation for the best Chinese barbecue in the San Gabriel Valley: crisp-skinned duck, redolent of five-spice; roast suckling pig with a crackling skin; a sweet smoked sausage reminiscent of wild boar; chewy cuttlefish rubbed red with barbecue seasoning. Later, the owners branched out into seafoods, hot-pots and exotic delicacies. By 1987, Sam Woo and its ilk had become one of the busiest restaurant groups in the San Gabriel Valley.

Here's the news: a Sam Woo B.B.Q. has opened in Irvine. The Irvine place is a dead-ringer for one of those Chinese barbecues in Monterey Park or Alhambra or San Gabriel, from the harsh lighting right down to the enthusiastic, predominantly Chinese clientele. The restaurant sits in a commercial complex near the busy corner of Culver and Irvine Center drives, between a Chinese market called 99 Ranch and a place called Sam Woo Restaurant (that's Sam Woo restaurant , as distinguished from Sam Woo B.B.Q .; the restaurant is an upscale seafood house, to be reviewed soon).

It's clear as soon as you enter that this is a place for serious eating. The right half is a colorful takeout area, staffed by eager young cooks ready to chop you a duck, shovel up some barbecued tripe or dish something out from the steam table. The left half is crowded with Formica-topped tables and hard-backed chairs; that din in your ears is clattering dishes and various Chinese dialects being spoken at high pitch. Irvine has an ever-growing Chinese community; during the week, a large percentage of them eat lunch here.

Though this is a cash-only operation, the menu lists a staggering 223 dishes. That number includes barbecued meats, soups, hot-pots, noodle dishes, rice plates, congees (rice porridges) and specialty dishes--in short, Cantonese standards ideal for the no-nonsense style of eating popular all over East Asia.

The natural starting place is barbecue. Sam Woo barbecue platter usually contains about four different meats, depending on what is in abundance on a given day. Ours had a few pieces of roast duck, a pile of sweet-edged char siu (barbecued pork) cut into strips, roast pig (skin on) and a few pieces of sliced cuttlefish on the top.

Pork intestine in spiced soy sauce isn't normally part of the platter, but tripe-lovers should request it, or merely add an order. This tripe has a firm, chewy texture and a sweet soy aftertaste, making it one of the most delicious organ meats I've ever tasted. Barbecued spare ribs of pork is popular among novice customers, who may not know the rewards of plain old barbecued pork. Char siu has the same marinade and texture as rib meat . . . you just don't have to work as hard for the reward.

If you're ordering a poultry dish such as soy sauce chicken or roast duck, ask for the house hot sauce (which is also terrific with the cuttlefish) and some of the orange-hued sweet-sour sauce, flavored with tiny bits of garlic and orange zest. Then move on to the soups. Some are palate-cleansers, such as the clam soup, which consists of nine or 10 clams (still on the shell) in a clear, faintly clam-flavored broth topped with a minimalist sprinkling of chopped green onion.

Others are assertively flavored, like salted egg with mustard green soup. Salted egg is a recurrent theme in the Cantonese kitchen, where it usually gives kick to rice porridges. Here it appears whole, poached in a clear broth thickened only with black mushroom, pieces of boiled pork and chunks of the mildly bitter, squash-like stem of the mustard plant.

Two hot-pots to try are beef brisket with turnip and roast pork with fried tofu. Both come in huge clay pots, and there is a good chance that the waiters will nod their approval as they set them down. The brisket hot-pot includes some bok choy and slightly caramelized turnip to cut the heaviness of the meat, and the only reason that the dish isn't brilliant is the relatively gristly, fatty brisket used. Pork and fried tofu taste great together, but remember that this is an oily, heavy dish, not something you want to order after you've already loaded up with barbecue.

At lunch, try the rice plates, such as minced beef and egg, shrimp with satay sauce or the simple, elegant roast duck on rice. A few of these dishes are rather banal, though. Shredded chicken with oyster sauce on rice is just chopped chicken in a thick gravy that contains no more than a rumor of mouth-watering oyster sauce. And diced pork with corn on rice reminds me of a TV dinner in which the three components somehow got mixed together.

Noodles in soup are all reliable, the soup part being a salty homemade chicken broth punctuated by the noodle you've ordered, such as won tons neatly pinched to order or sundry floury noodles with the proper chewy texture.

Sam Woo is a pioneer, probably the harbinger of more good things to come in central Orange County. It's a Sam World after all.

Sam Woo B.B.Q. is inexpensive to moderate. Barbecue is $4.25 to $11.95. Soups are $4.50. Hot pots are $5.95 to $7.50. Chinese dishes and rice plates are $4.25 to $8.95.

* SAM WOO B.B.Q.

* 15333 Culver Drive, Suite 720, Irvine.

* (714) 262-0888.

* Lunch and dinner 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

* Cash only.

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