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Thai'd Up

Bam Wraps and Asia Noodle make Irvine a package deal.

June 12, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — Asia Noodle Cafe and Bam Wraps, both in the University Center mall across the street from the UCI campus, specialize in what you could call third-wave fast food.

Is this the future of snacking? The UCI faculty and student body seem to be saying yes.

Bam Wraps, a few yards away from the Irvine Improv, is based on the wrap, something like an oversized, multicultural burrito--or maybe a Cornish pasty in a tortilla. Think of it as a salad, a hot entree and a starch course rolled into one.

Wrap joints have been blooming in California, but Bam's wraps are the most intelligently conceived I've had yet. The fresh, flavorful tortilla wrappers are by a local spice trader who calls her tortilla business the Spice Lady. They come in four interesting flavors: tomato, curry, basil pesto and whole wheat. When you order, you will do well to have the kitchen recommend the kind of tortilla that works best with the filling you choose.

Then it's fun to watch your wrap being assembled. Most ingredients (such as black beans, diced potatoes, roasted sweet corn, bacon, feta and various yogurt sauces) are already prepped, but they grill most of the meats--succulent cuts such as roast pork, flank steak, cilantro roast chicken and leg of lamb rubbed with rosemary and garlic.

Take the BLT: a tangy tomato tortilla stuffed with smoky bacon, lettuce, Roma tomatoes, avocado and a roasted garlic mayonnaise (the only dressing here that is not yogurt-based)--with the surprise addition of seared shrimp. It's delicious. Another of my favorites is the souvlaki wrap: roasted lamb, herbed potatoes, roasted bell peppers, feta cheese, oven-dried tomato, baby greens and a fresh oregano vinaigrette.

But there are also Southwestern, curry, Caesar and barbecue wraps, all with a choice of meats. Kinda Thai uses potatoes, peanuts, caramelized shallots, apples and a coconut-curry slaw--plus chicken, if you want it. Chinois is snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, bean sprouts, green onions and plum sauce, with a wasabi slaw.

Those last two fillings might taste better if they contained some rice, but co-owner Ricardo Bovero has a rationale for leaving it out. "Rice makes a wrap soggy," he says, "unless you use a sticky or Japanese-type rice that is high in gluten." That is also the reason Bam Wraps decided not to use oil-based sauces. The yogurt sauces happen to be light and healthy, but the real attraction was the fact that they tend to be drier.

To wash everything down, there are refreshing aguas frescas including mango and strawberry banana, and the house coffee is Starbucks'. (Why am I not surprised?)

Bam Wraps is inexpensive. Wraps are $4.75 to $6.75. Beverages are 95 cents to $1.50.

*

Asia Noodle Cafe has a terrific-sounding idea in this era of aerobic exercise and complex carbos: Eat noodles, a delicious and efficient source of energy. The cafe is decorated with Japanese fans, Chinese pottery and carved bamboo. You order from a service counter, and dishes are brought to your cafeteria-style table.

The menu features a choice of cold salads, soup noodles, fried noodles, a few side dishes and a selection of rice bowls with toppings. Foods from Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are prepared, though occasionally culinary borders seem to break down, making for less distinctive flavors.

In the pad Thai, for instance, the fried rice noodles (with scrambled egg, shrimp and crushed peanuts) come coated in a spicy red sauce that tastes suspiciously Korean. And Malaysia bowl, a huge bowl of rice topped with a sweet coconut chicken curry, has an insipid yellow sauce made with no vegetables and barely a hint of curry spices. What is this kitchen afraid of?

Vietnam ramen--wispy rice noodles in a well-seasoned broth with thinly sliced beef, mint leaves, bean sprouts, jalapenos and a wedge of lime on the side--is quite like the pho soup you'd get in Little Saigon, if less intensely flavored. Taipei ramen uses the same noodle in the soup base, with a topping of shredded pork, sliced mushrooms and green onions.

The side dish edamame (steamed green soy beans) is reliable; I don't care much for the flavorless Filipino lumpia egg rolls in their sticky, sugary red sauce. Pao choi is a Korean-style (not very peppery) bowl of cabbage, carrots and jalapenos that leaves a sweet aftertaste. Mandarin chicken salad, enthusiastically recommended by someone at the next table, turned out to be a bland mixture of chicken breast, mandarin oranges, almonds and fried noodles in a vague ginger dressing.

Cafe pancit, based on the same noodles as the pad Thai, is better. Doused in a strong soy-based sauce and fried with pork, scrambled eggs, onions, tomatoes and bean sprouts, the noodles taste quite authentic.

At the very least, everything meets the student-food criterion of being tasty, cheap and filling. And there's a selection of Asian teas--black, genmai, Japanese green, oolong and jasmine--at a reasonable $1 each.

Asia Noodle Cafe is inexpensive. Side orders are $1.10 to $3.25. Cold salads are $3.50 to $5.25. Noodles are $4.75 to $5.95. Rice bowls are $4.50 to $5.35.

BE THERE

* Bam Wraps, 4249 Campus Drive, Irvine. (714) 737-5454. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Cash only.

* Asia Noodle Cafe, 4187 Campus Drive, Irvine. (714) 654-1801. Open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-9 p.m. Saturday; noon-8 p.m. Sunday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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