Since Cat was feeling a bit restless tonight, I took her to the Irvine Spectrum for some shopping and people watching. We swung by Windsor to take a look at some of the evening gowns, but the fashions this season were so hideous that we didn't stay long. Our stomachs had begun to rumble after our brisk turn around the mall, so we decided to head over to the Red Onion Cafe for a late dinner.
When I'm craving hearty Taiwanese cuisine, the Red Onion Cafe always delivers. Formerly called the Oshine Cafe, the Red Onion Cafe was rechristened after management of the restaurant was passed on to younger relatives in the same family. As Oshine, the restaurant had a dubious reputation with Irvine locals. Its eclectic and highly varied menu offered a confused combination of Taiwanese street fare and Hong Kong coffee shop dishes. Experience and a sense of adventure were required to figure out which dishes were good and which would leave you regretting your order. In addition, a few bad apples in the restaurant's staff resulted in an inconsistent level of service and poorly timed product delivery. It's a testament to the level of quality of the restaurant's more popular dishes that it was able to maintain a loyal following of local customers; mainly young Taiwanese professionals and college students.
Earlier this year, the Oshine received a much needed makeover. The interior of the restaurant was remodeled to appeal to the taste of its core clientele. New servers and kitchen staff were hired to replace problem employees, new serving ware was purchased, and the look-and-feel of the restaurant was changed from that of a traditional Chinese restaurant to a hip, modern Taiwanese cafe. The most important changes were made to the menu, where seldom ordered and less favorably received items were stripped out. Gone were many of the Hong Kong style dim sum dishes that, to be brutally honest, the restaurant never did very well. Gone were also many of the strange and more eclectic dishes that failed to appeal to the restaurant's core clientele. Instead, the new menu focused on the most popular items from the old menu, as well as a few new items marketed towards the tastes of the restaurant's loyal customer base.
The result was the Red Onion Cafe, which continues to offer many of the same great dishes at the same great prices in better surroundings with vastly improved service and taste. Service at the Red Onion Cafe is now spectacular. Our waitress was courteous and efficient, and our dishes started arriving within ten minutes after we placed our order. Not only did the kitchen staff time the cooking so that our entrees arrived piping hot and within a minute or two of each other, our waitress also informed us as to which items would take more time and which items weren't recommended due to lack of freshness, and also suggested alternatives that would appeal to our tastes based on what we'd attempted to order. I was quite impressed.
For her dinner drink, Cat ordered a watermelon juice. Similar to a Mexican aqua fresca, this refreshing beverage is made by pureeing chilled watermelon with a small bit of additional sugar if needed. The resulting beverage is light, cool, and refreshing, but not too sweet. It reminds me of warm summer nights in NorCal, sitting on lawn chairs in the backyard with my family and eating slices of fresh watermelon my mom had chilled in the fridge. If summer came in a glass, it would probably taste like watermelon juice.
I ordered a small Taiwan Beer, the national beer of Taiwan. Served properly in an ice cold bottle with a chilled glass on the side, the beer was dry, mild, and crisp with just a hint of sweetness from the addition of rice to the brewing process. It's one of my favorite beers, right up there with Asahi Super Dry and Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale.
To go with my beer, I ordered a plate of fried chitterlings. Slices of pork intestine were deep fried to a rich, golden brown, dusted with salt, served on a bed of thinly shredded cabbage, and garnished with chopped green onion for a flavor combination that was out of this world. The delightful sting of the salt, the crispiness of the fried intestinal membrane, and the melt-in-your-mouth decadence of the fat inside came together exquisitely. The shredded cabbage added crunch and a hint of sweetness to balance the salt, and the green onion added just the right astringent touch to offset the richness of the fat. This was the perfect accompaniment to my Taiwan Beer and, for me, the killer app of the evening. An African-American gentleman sitting in a booth next to mine was so enamored that he ordered a second plate. As usual, Cat wouldn't touch the stuff which just meant more for me. Yum!
For her entree, Cat ordered her usual; the Orange Chicken set. It came with a big bowl of rice and the vegetable sides of the day. A real bargain and a big meal for only $6.50.
Large chunks of marinated chicken were dredged in cornstarch, deep fried, then tossed in a lightly spiced, sweet and sour orange glaze. The crunchiness of the chicken was perfectly preserved, and the balance between sweet and sour in the sauce was well calculated. The aroma of orange in the dish was enhanced with the addition of Taiwanese dried and fermented tangerine peels, which added complexity and body to the dish. The chili paste in the sauce had only a minimal presence, used to add an additional flavor component and not for its heat. People more accustomed to the fiery heat of Sichuan cuisine may be surprised by the gentleness of this dish, but it complies well with the basic tenets of Taiwanese cuisine; emphasizing a number of simple, natural flavors and combining them in a comforting and harmonious melody of taste.
The sides also reflected this focus on balanced flavors. On one side, crisp Taiwanese cabbage, smaller and much sweeter than Western cabbage, was simply stir-fried with a little salt. On the other side, small pieces of marinated, simmered, and smoked firm tofu were stir-fried with red bell peppers, green beans, and a dash of soy sauce. Both sides displayed a balance between salty and sweet, and played a refreshing counterpoint to the heavier Orange Chicken.
Since I was in an adventurous frame of mind, I succumbed to the temptation of one of Red Onion's new, post-Oshine dinner sets; a special pork and rice noodle soup with a side of braised pork belly. Like most islanders near and in southeast Asia, we Taiwanese love our pork. This meal set appeared to be chock full of piggy goodness and I was more than ready to take up its porky challenge.
The lynchpin of this noodle soup was the broth. Thick, rich, and full of flavor, this invigorating pork-based stock warmed me to the depths of my soul. With each sip, I could feel energy surging from within my bones to the tips of my fingers. It was a late dinner, and I'd been somewhat tired before I began eating the soup. The broth refreshed me and gave me back my energy, which is why you find me still typing such a long review at 2am. To my surprise, the rice noodles in the soup were short and very thick, instead of the long, gossamer thin strands I was expecting. However, they paired perfectly with the broth, soaking up the rich flavors and sliding smoothly down my throat with each mouthful. Strips of lean pork and bits of cilantro dotted the soup, adding texture and additional elements of taste. The only flat notes were the cubes of deep fried tofu. While they didn't detract from the dish, they didn't add anything to it either. I couldn't help but wonder why they'd been included.
The braised pork belly was also excellent. Slices of pork belly had been marinated soy sauce and spices, then slowly braised to render out almost all of the fat. The resulting dish was served cold, garnished with green onion and a very light drizzle of sesame oil. The pork belly was tender and chewy, with just the right balance between salty and sweet. The flavors of the pork belly were somewhat overpowered when eaten with the pork and rice noodle soup, but that was my only complaint.
Because our meals were light on vegetables, Cat and I decided to split a small plate of Chinese spinach. Flash fried with garlic and salt, just the way my grandmother made it, it made a pleasant accompaniment to our meal. Eat piece was tender, crunchy, and very fresh. I highly recommend it.
Our final dish was a plate of Taiwanese boiled dumplings, which came last since they take a little longer to prepare. This is one of Cat's favorite dishes at the Red Onion. Thick, hand-made dumpling skins are used to envelope a tasty mixture of ground pork and chopped chives. The ginger and Chinese black vinegar dipping sauce provides a tart accent to the mild sweetness of the dumplings. Unfortunately, this batch was a bit of a disappointment. The dumplings had been cooked for too long, resulting in dry, tough filling and watery skins. They also hadn't been properly drained, which made the bottom portions of the skins even more gelatinous. Cat and I had one each, and decided to take the rest home. We were full and they weren't worth the stomach space.
The food at the Red Onion Cafe isn't revolutionary or life altering. It won't blow you over, knock your socks off, or challenge any preconceived notions you may have about Taiwanese cuisine. It's not food the way grandma used to make it. What the Red Onion serves are simple, wholesome, and delicious Taiwanese cafe-style meals in a classy atmosphere with good service. The food at Nice Time Deli across the street is certainly as good if not slightly better than what's served at the Red Onion. But Nice Time lacks the soothing ambience and classy environment that Red Onion provides. Furthermore, there are a number of excellent dishes on Red Onion's menu that you won't find on the menus of any other Taiwanese restaurants in the area. If you're in the neighborhood and craving a tasty Taiwanese meal, I strongly urge you to give the Red Onion Cafe a try.
The Red Onion Cafe - Food that nourishes both the body and soul.
Bill (for two):
Taiwan Beer (small) - 3.75
Fresh Watermelon Juice - 2.50
Fried Chitterlings - 4.25
Orange Chicken Set - 6.50
Veggie sides - included with orange chicken set
Fried Tofu, Pork, and Rice Noodle Soup Set - 8.95
Braised Pork Belly - included with pork noodle soup set
Stir-fried Chinese Spinach with Garlic - 6.95
Taiwanese Boiled Dumplings - 4.95
Tax - 2.93
Tip - 6.00
Total - 46.78
Red Onion Cafe
14805 Jeffrey Rd., Ste H
Irvine, CA 92720
-=Addendum January 16, 2007=-
The Red Onion Cafe has sadly closed. Read the articles below for more details.