COSTA MESA — By the 23rd try, you'd think Sam Woo might have settled into some kind of formula.
Sam Woo B.B.Q. and Seafood Bistro, the showpiece restaurant in the gleaming new Metro Pointe shopping center, is the 23rd in a chain that began in Monterey Park's Little Taiwan and has spread to Las Vegas and Canada, not to mention all around California.
For some reason, this Sam Woo breaks rank. It leaves out the squid, fish, offal and exotic leaf vegetables that crowd the menus at the other 22.
In their place is barbecued turkey, a low-fat, five-spice meat that makes a credible stand-in for Chinese barbecued pork.
Let's face it: In the shadow of fashionable South Coast Plaza, the place can't miss.
You may have guessed that I prefer more authentic Chinese cooking. But as long as you don't come here expecting down-home Cantonese and northern Chinese dishes, a good time is in store, in spite of compromises in the kitchen.
The design is shopping mall chic: If it weren't for a huge Chinese vase on a raised platform in one corner of this sunny pastel-hued room, this could be taken for any upscale ethnic restaurant from Albanian to Zairian.
Tables covered in pale green cloth afford a view of the mall through giant plate-glass windows. Overhead, a giant A-shaped soffit angles upward across the ceiling. The chairs, stiff blond wood with black cushions, remind me of the furniture in an Ikea catalog. The service is stiff, too, though far more solicitous than it ever is at, for instance, the Irvine Sam Woo.
When you think appetizer here, think barbecue. The original Sam Woo started as a humble barbecue joint filled with lacquered ducks, marinated pork and chickens brushed with a distinctive blend of star anise, ginger, garlic and other traditional Chinese barbecue spices.
Some Chinese at an adjoining table were disappointed when the manager explained that the restaurant does not serve si yau gai, the deliciously rubber-skinned soy sauce chicken that is a Chinese barbecue house standard. I was about to suggest that they try an order of barbecued turkey, but I bit my tongue, remembering what a Chinese friend once said with a sneer as he refused a bite of Thanksgiving turkey: "It tastes like wood."
This one, I assure you, does not. Sam Woo's flavorful barbecued turkey grows on you, and the meat's low fat content makes for guilt-free eating. The barbecued ribs won't pass muster with the cardiologist, but they are lean, sticky-sweet ribs that smell wonderfully of Sam Woo's trademark barbecue rub.
Then there is Peking duck. It isn't served in three or even two courses (soup and bones, skin in steamed buns and then the duck meat itself), as you'd expect for the price--it's $24, more than twice anything else here--but you do get a breathtaking platter. Waiters will carefully make little sandwiches of plum sauce, green onion skin and duck meat for everyone at the table. The duck is wonderful, with crackling skin and juicy, subtly spiced meat.
Dishes other than barbecue are hit and miss. Despite the name "barbecue and seafood bistro," the only seafood is one or two scallop dishes, a handful of shrimp dishes and a couple of ultra-bland sole preparations: sweet and sour or stir-fried with a light ginger-green onion sauce. Yawn.
That's not to say that there aren't fine non-barbecue dishes. Crisp, golden brown pot stickers are perfumed subtly with leeks, garlic and rice wine. Guilin shrimp balls are nicely fried globes of pure shrimp meat with a crunchy rice crust, excellent when dipped in the house sweet and sour sauce, which is strangely red but acceptably understated.
Some entrees have heft to burn. Steak Chinese style is tender flank steak tossed in a wok with rice wine and more of that sweet and sour sauce. Lemon chicken is pieces of chicken breast lightly battered and fried in peanut oil. Then they are dipped in a sweet and pungent lemon sauce. Tread lightly with this one; it is addictingly rich and fills you fast.
No complaints about the kung pao dishes--shrimp, beef or chicken, all tossed with blackened fagara pepper and a load of fried peanuts. The kung pao chicken is plenty hot, and the peanuts have little bubbles on them from their hot oil bath. Kung pao shrimp benefits most of all from the textural complexity of the classic sauce, a colorful blend that includes onion and water chestnut.
Vegetable dishes are one last surprise here. They are characterized by freshness and a restrained (for a Chinese kitchen) use of oil.
This is one of the few restaurants in O.C. where you can get spicy eggplant in garlic sauce without having to deal with a plateful of oil in the balance.
Hot braised string bean gets its intensity from the use of dried shrimp and minced, preserved radish, plus a hot bean sauce.
Normally the dish is made with minced pork, but for our health-conscious market, the change makes sense.
There also are salads, such as Sam Woo roasted duck salad, chicken Caesar salad and fresh fruit shrimp salad. I'm not enamored of the idea of salad in a Chinese restaurant under any circumstances.
In fact, I'll go further: If you want to eat salad, go to an American restaurant.
Sam Woo is moderately expensive. Appetizers are $2.50 to $6. Barbecue is $6.50 to $24. Entrees are $4.95 to $11.50.
* Sam Woo, 901-C South Coast Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 668-0800. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. All major cards.