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A Bit of Hong Kong in Irvine

At S.W. Seafood & Barbecue, options are plentiful and tasty.

May 04, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Who ever expected this? Within its master-planned neighborhoods, Irvine is quickly becoming Orange County's Chinatown.

And the city's growing Chinese community is starting to show its consumer muscle. Large strip malls such as Culver Plaza and the Orange Tree Square almost exclusively feature Chinese-owned businesses, ranging from markets and banks to bookstores and boutiques.

Of course, this also means they have an abundance of authentic Chinese restaurants, and it's not a stretch to say that Irvine is now the place to find the best Chinese food in the county.

Although Sam Woo in the Culver Plaza has received much praise as one of the leaders, it has capable competition from a number of Irvine restaurants. The most notable is S.W. Seafood & Barbecue Restaurant.

The Orange County adage that the most interesting food is served in strip malls certainly holds true for S.W. Seafood. Tucked into the rear of the Orange Tree Square (located off the corner of Walnut Avenue and Jeffrey Road next to the Santa Ana Freeway), this storefront restaurant isn't visible from the street, but word of mouth keeps the place packed for lunch and dinner most days and nights.

I certainly like going to S.W. Seafood for lunch, when I can feast on $2 dim sum selections and $5 lunch specials. Although there is an impressive range of the latter (60, and remember, this is just for lunch), I nearly always order the same thing: the barbecued pork, which is sliced from a meaty slab hanging from a hook in a glass case by the front counter and laid across a mound of sticky rice. I can't get enough of the stuff. The meat is particularly tender and improved by a sweet glaze that also gives a nice flavor to the rice. To me, it's a perfect lunch.

While ordering that, though, I still can't pass up the dim sum menu. Among the modest 15 choices, I always get the pork dumplings, which absolutely burst with salty, meaty juices.

But it's at night that S.W. reaches its potential as a Hong Kong-style restaurant. The standing menu lists a mind-numbing number of choices (241 to be exact), and the chef's special menu adds about 50 more. Its best dishes, served hot and sizzling, include savory chicken, pork and beef selections and more exotic choices as squid, tripe and intestine. People who live to eat, love to eat in good Hong Kong-style places; the choices are so diverse and the flavors so fresh.

Fortunately, the waiters at S.W. Seafood understand that choosing from this menu can be a confusing task, and they are more than willing to make recommendations.

In fact, they almost insist on it. "No, that one's not as good," one said to me as I scanned the standing menu. "The chef's specials are much better."

Our group of four put down our menus and listened up. "Do you like seafood?" she continued. "Get the double delicacy shrimp. Very, very good. And do you want meat? Get the steak with asparagus. Or don't you want asparagus?"

Hey, we wanted asparagus.

She continued with recommendations, and we supplemented our culinary tour de force with General Chaos chicken and Peking-style pork chop. "But before we get to that, I said, we want to start with the blossom platter."

The blossom platter is a carnivore's dream--a large plate piled high with roast pork, chicken and duck, barbecued pork and jellyfish. Accompanying it are plum and sweet-and-sour sauces, minced ginger and a pungent mustard.

Some of my party would have enjoyed it more if they'd known that it's an appetizer platter of cold cuts, not a hot entree. The salty jellyfish was quite satisfying to all, though, as was the moist chicken with that fresh minced ginger.

The Peking-style pork chop followed. It glistened red with a sweet-and-sour sauce glaze, making a crisp shell over the chewy meat. After that came the double delicacy shrimp. One straw basket featured honey-glazed walnut shrimp and another sauteed shrimp pungent with black pepper. Both were delectable--one sweet and one spicy--without overwhelming flavors to mask the subtle shrimp taste.

After devouring the shrimp, the four of us had eaten enough, but next came the sauteed chunk of steak with pine nuts and asparagus. The steak was tender and covered in a light meat sauce. And despite its name (surely it should be General Chao's), "General Chaos" chicken was a very simple dish of chicken in soy sauce with dried red peppers and green onions, surrounded by a crown of broccoli. Our waiter provided us a light, fruity gelatin to finish our meal.

Even with sampling a number of dishes over my many visits there, I have yet to touch the depth of S.W.'s menu. There are dozens of chow mein, lo mein and congee-broth dishes still to try, and I definitely want to explore the various hot pots, which feature assorted meats and vegetables in savory broths simmered in ceramic pots.

That's what makes dining in Chinese restaurants such as S.W. Seafood & Barbecue so stimulating--there's always something new and delicious to try.

On my first dinner visits, I made a point of sticking to well-known, benchmark Chinese dishes. I look forward to coming back for some of the more adventurous choices.

Thanks to Irvine's vigorous Chinese community, restaurants such as S.W. Seafood are no longer an exception.

BE THERE

S.W. Seafood & Barbecue Restaurant, 5406-A Walnut Ave., Irvine. (949) 262-0128. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Entrees $8 to $15.

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