Every September, the City of Irvine holds a large cultural festival in the park next to city hall. The purpose of the festival is to celebrate the city's rich cultural diversity.
"Cultural diversity? In Irvine? Hah!” you scoff.
As most SoCalites know, Irvine boasts large populations of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean descent. But, believe it or not, Irvine also has significant numbers of Americans with Indian, Persian, Russian, Jewish, and South African backgrounds. In short, we're not as white-washed as all that.
The highlight of the euphoniously named Irvine Global Village Festival is the food. Dozens of stalls ring a huge eating area with bands and live entertainment. Restaurants from all cultures and all over Orange County compete for customers, offering tasty tapas-like samples from their menus are dirt cheap prices. It's a Chowhound's paradise.
(The wagon isn't mine. It was being used by an enterprising father of two who was kind enough to let me take a picture.)
Since there were more dishes available at this festival than one man could possibly eat, I enlisted the aid of two assistants. First off, there was me, your humble food blogger:
Then there was my partner in life and gastronomic crime:
But since Cat is a slender slip of a girl with a birdlike appetite, despite her love for tasty eats, I needed some backup; a real heavy hitter with good taste buds, a stomach of iron and two wooden legs. I knew just the man for the job. I called up my old friend and house mate from college:
The Shire Nomad
With my team assembled, it was time to get to work. I tweaked my normal rating system to take the fair atmosphere into account and headed out of the dugout. Game on!
First up to bat was this combo plate from a booth jointly run by Koba Tofu House and the Irvine Korean Parents Association. For five dollars, you got the following:
- Three individual pieces of bulkogi - Grilled, marinated Korean short ribs
- A generous portion of oi kimchee - Spicy cucumber pickles
- Four fried dumplings
- A bowl of rice
The price was right and the portions were decent, but frankly I was disappointed. The bulkogi was undercooked and still raw by the bone. Cat refused to even touch it. I'm Asian and, since I paid for it, I ate it. It was seasoned well, but chewy and gristly in the way only undercooked meat can be. While I understand the difficulty in preparing food in outdoor conditions, Koreans are the Asian masters of the grill, and this food was being prepared by a restaurant. There was no excuse for undercooked meat that might have made their customers sick. The oi kimchee was all right, if a little over-salted for my taste. The dumplings were mediocre; crispy on the outside and bland on the inside with a filling of chicken meat, celery, carrots, and spices. The steamed rice was standard, and probably the best part of the place.
While I hesitate to judge a restaurant by the quality of the food it serves in an outdoor setting, I'll probably try the other tofu houses in Irvine before I make my way to Koba.
Flavor: D (undercooked meat)
Koba Tofu House
14370 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA 92604
Next up to the plate after Koba struck out so unequivocally were these two samplers procured by the Shire Nomad.
The first was the sampler on the left. An appetizer plate offered by Supatra Thai Bistro, it consisted of a steamed dumpling, a crispy fried wonton, and a stick of chicken satay. This plate was all right, but nothing to write home about. According to the Shire Nomad, the flavors of the steamed dumpling were completely drowned out by the soy-based sauce. He was unable to figure out what was used in the filling. The crispy wonton was mostly texture with little flavor. The wrapper was nicely fried and the filling was meat based, but he could barely taste either the filling or the sweet, orange sauce drizzled over the top. The killer app for the sampler was the chicken satay. It was a little dry, as satays tend to be, but tender and flavorful. The peanut sauce compensated nicely for the dryness and nicely complemented the flavors of the meat without overpowering them.
Yorba Linda is a little out of my way, but I just might give Supatra a try the next time I'm visiting one of my friends in the area.
Flavor: B (The satay was good, but the dumplings were unremarkable.)
Supatra Thai Bistro
21560 Yorba Linda Blvd. E
Yorba Linda, CA 92887
Mozambique was up after Supatra, with their Seafood Curry Sampler (pictured above on the right). Tender chunks of white fish were poached in Mozambique's coconut-based house curry sauce and served with a mini roll. The Shire Nomad thought the fish was excellently cooked, and that the curry was rich and spicy without being too strong or hot. Unfortunately, the combination of fish and curry didn't appeal to his palate.
The Shire Nomad isn't particularly fond of seafood. I, on the other hand, eat a lot of fish. I thought the bit of the sauce I tried was intriguing, and am planning on making a trip to the restaurant to try out the real deal.
Flavor: B (Based on the Shire Nomad's review.)
1740 S Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
With Supatra on second and Mozambique on first, we needed a reliable hitter to load the bases. I thought I had a sure thing when I got into the loooong line in front of the Otafuku Foods booth for some vegetable okonomiyake. Like House Foods of Curry House fame, Otafuku Foods is an import company marketing Japanese condiments. They'd set up the okonomiyake booth at the festival in order to showcase their company's sauces in a city with a high Asian population. It worked, since without their sauce, the okonomiyake was really nondescript. Made with a thick flour batter, their okonomiyake contained cabbage, green onion, carrots, corn, soybeans, and tofu, was the approximate size and shape of a hockey puck, and tasted like... Otafuku Foods Okonomiyake Sauce, of course. The surface area was more charred than crispy and, other than the textural component added by the soybeans, the okonomiake was a mediocre example of its breed.
Otafuku sauces are available in most Asian grocery stores. The sauces are actually pretty good. I just hope the company never tries opening an okonomiyake grill.
Otafuku Foods, Inc.
377 Van Ness Ave., #1208
Torrance, CA 90501
Otafuku had whiffed it and been tagged out. We only had one more shot or the inning would be over. A smart manager would pick a reliable player, like Stonefire Grill or Cha for Tea, to load the bases and maybe even bring one of the boys home. But I was weak and decided to gamble it all on the dim sum from Russell's Seafood Palace, with surprising results.
For only two dollars, I was able to choose a dim sum sampler with three items. I chose the following in clockwise order, starting from the upper left of the container:
- Lotus Seed Jin Dui - Sweetened glutinous rice dough wrapped around a ball of sweet lotus seed paste, coated with sesame seeds and deep fried.
- Cha Siu Bao - Pork marinated and barbecued in a sweet Chinese sauce, minced, enclosed, and baked in a light, brioche like bread.
- Hom Sui Gok - Unsweetened glutinous rice wrapped around a savory pork, dried shrimp, and mushroom mixture, then deep fried.
Russell's had made an excellent calculation in choosing what to bring. Their lineup consisted of either baked or deep fried items with what's known in the food industry as "stamina" or "staying power", meaning that their items could sit out at room temperature for long periods of time without any noticeable decrease in quality. I know Russell's has a poor reputation with my fellow Chowhounds, but I was thoroughly satisfied with my choices.
The Lotus Seed Jin Dui was very crispy on the outside, with a soft, chewy crust. The lotus seed paste inside was mild, pleasant, and not overly sweet. The Cha Siu Bao was excellent, with just the right amount of sauce and tender pork filling. The crumb of the bun (the spongy part under the crust) was so light and fluffy it felt like it might blow off of my hand. I was a little surprised at how sticky the glaze covering the top was, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the dish. The Hom Sui Gok was a little oily, but not unpleasantly so. The exterior was crispy and flaky, like a piece of high quality tempura. The wrapper was soft and chewy, and just the right amount to spread the flavors of the filling throughout my mouth.
Russell's dim sum was panned by my fellow Chowhounds when it first opened. However, if the items I tasted at the festival were any indication, they may have improved significantly in the year and a half since. I think it's time to revisit Russell's, and I've added it to my list of places to review soon.
Russell's Seafood Palace
1818 Main St.
Irvine, CA 92614
Two outs, bases loaded. I'd gotten lucky with Russell's, but now I needed a home run or we might lose it all. Luckily, I spotted Formosan Restaurant and their combo plate of delectable Taiwanese fare. I'd never been to Formosan before, but I know I could count on a Taiwanese restaurant to deliver serious good eats, and it did in the spades with a combo plate containing:
- A chicken drumstick - Braised Taiwanese style in a soy-based, five spice and tea broth.
- A tea egg - Braised in the same broth as the drumstick.
- Crispy, grilled Taiwanese pork sausage.
- A large helping of Taiwanese mixed rice with pork, dried shrimp, and shitake mushrooms.
Southeast Asian cuisine in general, and Taiwanese cuisine in particular, revolves around the concept of cheap street food. Some of the best meals I've ever had in this region have been served from rickety carts by the side of a road. So it's no wonder that when it comes to fair food, nobody throws down like the Taiwanese.
The chicken was moist and meltingly tender. The meat had been infused with the tea and spices, and was absolutely delicious. Cat enjoyed it very much, leaving nothing behind but the bone. Tea eggs are one of Cat's favorite Taiwanese dishes. This one was delicately scented by the tea, and had absorbed just the right amount of salt. The yolk practically melted when it hit the tongue. Cat scrummed this one up as well. The pork sausage was spectacular. Crisp on the outside but loaded with hot juice and fat on the inside, it burst in the mouth with every bite. This was a fresh sausage, which meant it hadn't been dried or cured. The flavors were milder than in the dried version, but pleasingly so. The mixed rice was complex yet simple, elegant yet profound. Small pieces of cooked lean pork, dried shrimp, shitake mushrooms, and Taiwanese fried shallots had been mixed with soy, spices, and steamed, short grained rice. Individually, the components were tasty but nothing special. Together, they became much more than the sum of their parts. My only complaint was that due to the time it had spent in the chafing dish, the rice wasn't as moist as it should have been. I'd love to have had it freshly made. I'm also used to having this dish made with more glutinous rice. However, the version Formosan served at the festival was still very satisfying.
I will definitely be visiting Formosan Restaurant often in the future. If what they served at the festival is any indication of their talent, Formosan has the potential to become one of my favorite Taiwanese restaurants.
Formosan Chinese Restaurant
23702 Rockfield Blvd
El Toro, CA 92630
With Formosan's home run, I was quite satisfied with my Irvine Global Village Festival experience. However, that didn't mean we were done eating. Here's a quick lightning round of the rest.
The Shire Nomad picked up this combo plate from Chakra Indian Cuisine. We weren't sure what all that was, but it was essentially a plate with a samossa, rice pilaf, and some weird white stuff none of us had ever seen before. It also came with an amazing amount of cucumber yogurt in the bowl to the right.
The Shire Nomad loved the samossa, which contained an intriguing blend of mushrooms, herbs, and spices. The white stuff he described as some sort of spicy cottage cheese-like mix, and the rice pilaf was described as unremarkable. The cucumber yogurt was declared an utter failure, given the huge chunks of yogurt and the lack of incorporation of all the elements. The flavors hadn't melded.
The food in this combo was just a little too weird for all of us, even though we're all experienced lovers of Indian cuisine (Hooray for India Cook House!). I might give Chakra a whirl one of these days, but the reviews haven't been promising and the food they served at the festival didn't impress.
Chakra Indian Cuisine
4143 Campus Dr.
Irvine, CA 92612
Cat, the tea egg lover, scored this magnificent tea egg from the Champion Food booth. Champion is a chain of Chinese preserved food markets and supplies a number of preserved and prepared products in its stores, including frozen dumplings and buns, as well as preserved soy, meat, and seafood jerkies. What was surprising was that the Champion Food store participating is this event wasn't the one in Irvine, but was the one in Fountain Valley. The egg was pretty good. Saltier and more strongly flavored that the one from Formosan Restaurant, it was redolent with the flavor of Chinese five spice powder. Unfortunately, the flavor of the cloves in the powder was quite strong in this egg. Since cloves aren't Cat's cup of tea, the Shire Nomad and I split it.
I need to hit one of their stores and get me some tofu jerky.
Champion Food Corporation
17090 Magnolia St.
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
I was feeling the need for dessert, but instead of hitting Strickland’s, I decided to try some of the nosh at the African Hut. The African Hut is an online retailer specializing in South African wine and dry goods. They have a small brick and mortar presence tucked between a used bookstore and an antique gun shop in Laguna Niguel, but the bulk of their business is mail order. A few South African friends from the last video game development house I worked at introduced me to the African Hut and South African food several years ago, and it was love at first sight.
I picked up a piece of milk tart, which I'd never tried before, and a Stoney Ginger Beer with which to wash it down. The milk tart was wonderful. Sweet, custardy, milky, and light with a hint of cinnamon from the top, it enveloped me in its gentleness. The crust was flaky and moist, but not overly buttery or rich. I actually suspect that lard was used in its construction. The Stoney Ginger Beer as a perfect accompaniment. Sharp and peppery with a strong ginger flavor, it wasn't too sweet and helped cut the richness of the tart. The perfect closer to my food adventure.
I highly recommend the African Hut and its products to all of you.
The African Hut
27601 Forbes Rd
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677
On a strange note, although I normally don't play the race card, I thought I detected some racism from one of the South African women at the booth. There were two South African women there that day. The younger one was very friendly to me, but there was a definite cold wind blowing towards me from the older one. I still wouldn't have thought anything was wrong, except that the older one had been all sweetness and light to each of the two white customers who had been in front of me, and was friendly again to the white customer behind me. It could be that she just didn't like me, but my English is perfect (since I was born here), and I'm unfailingly polite to everyone I interact it (a holdover from my high school days in retail and food service). Most of my South African friends are my age and have been here for a while. However, I think that with some of the older generation, while they may have left apartheid, apartheid hasn't left them. Food for thought.
That one strange incident doesn't change my overall experience with the Irvine Global Village Festival, which I found an utterly worthwhile experience and quite enjoyable. It also shouldn't affect whether or not you decide to do business with the African Hut. I've actually met one of the owners in a professional capacity, since we both work in the IT industry. She struck me as warm, friendly, professional, and competent, and I'm happy to give her shop my custom.
The Irvine Global Village Festival
Bill Barber Park
4 Civic Center Plaza
Irvine, CA 92606
One day every September from 10:00am-6:00pm