The first two introductory paragraphs are the same in all articles in my Dim Sum Series. Feel free to skip down to the first picture if you've already read them.)
Dim sum restaurants are a hotly contested topic amongst Orange County foodies. Every person has their favorite, and defends it with an almost rabid intensity on the message boards. Read any thread and you'll find that Seafood World, Seafood Paradise, and Dragon Phoenix Palace in Little Saigon will have invariably emerged as top contenders. It's a certainty that someone will mention China Garden in Irvine as an acceptable alternative, and bash other restaurants like Furiwa. If it's a slow day on the Net, you might even see armed encampments form, arguing vociferously as to whether or not Dragon Phoenix has fallen from grace and been surpassed by Seafood World, or if new dim sum restaurant X holds a candle to any of the perennial favorites. The answer is invariably "no".
The most passionate flamers are locals who grew up eating at a particular restaurant, delivering their judgments about all of the others as if their opinions carry the weight of the ages, and launching verbal tirades against those of different dim sum faiths. It's difficult, then, for a dim sum newcomer in Orange County to gauge the veracity of any of the statements and decide which dim sum restaurant to visit. This is why I chose to start my Dim Sum Series. As a relatively recent arrival to Orange County, I'm impartial when it comes to local dim sum restaurants. I don't have any favorites. I just want to give my readers enough information to make an informed decision when choosing a dim sum dining location. Take everything I say with a dab of chili oil. I'm just a guy who likes food. Ultimately, the best way to decide if a restaurant is worth eating at is to try it yourself.
The reigning king of Irvine's dim sum establishments, China Garden is an iconic building that exudes a sense of permanence in the otherwise transitory restaurant world. For over ten years, it has survived rising gas prices, seasonal and economic slumps, and even a fire that closed the restaurant down for a time.
Despite these hardships, China Garden has continued to serve authentic and delicious Cantonese cuisine at highly competitive prices. In any discussion about Orange County dim sum, China Garden will inevitably be mentioned as a must-try. It's no wonder, then, that this Irvine eatery is beloved by locals and local food bloggers alike, including Professor Salt, Rasa Malaysia, and Elmomonster.
On weekends, the dining area resembles a battlefield, as crowds fill the restaurant to capacity and spill out onto the front lawn. Families just out from church or Chinese school, bleary eyed college students looking for something to take the edge off of their hangovers, and the occasional bemused Westerner, all gather seeking their dim sum fix. Although wait times for a table can exceed an hour, China Garden's popularity is unaffected.
La You (Chili Oil, Chinese red gold.)
During my three visits for this review, I discovered that the best time to go for weekend dim sum is at 10:00am, when the restaurant opens. With luck, you'll beat the after church/Chinese school rush. Even then, you may find yourself waiting if there are enough early birds ahead of you.
The service at China Garden is brusque, but efficient. Flagging down a waiter is easy. They usually respond to requests with alacrity. The numerous dim sum carts make complete circuits of the dining area frequently, although the cart ladies are often gruff and intimidating, and will try to sell you everything they're carrying. There are worse fates than a table full of dim sum, I suppose.
Unlike many of the dim sum restaurants I've sampled during this series, the fried items at China Garden are surprisingly good. Take this Jiao Yen You Yu (Fried Pepper Squid), for example. While the batter was a little thick for my taste, none of the pieces felt soaked in grease. The squid was tender and well seasoned with the peppers and salt. The browned garlic bits were so addictive they should have been banned. Each one was a tiny explosion of caramelized flavor that made my taste buds shimmy like the grass skirt on a Hawaiian hula girl's hips. All I wanted was a bowl of rice and a big spoon.
The Yu Jue (Fried Taro Cakes) were excellent. The honeycombed taro batter was light and airy, melting away on my tongue.
The scallop embedded in each piece was perfectly cooked, while the minced pork filling added the right amount of saltiness to season the otherwise bland ingredients.
However, the real draws of any dim sum establishment are its steamed items. Here, China Garden really shines, flawlessly executing the complex flavors of traditional Cantonese dim sum. Take the always popular Xia Jiao (Shrimp Dumplings). With their resilient skins and juicy shrimp fillings, China Garden's Xia Jiao are chewy parcels of crustacean delight. Bubba Gump, eat your heart out.
For those looking for a different take on an old favorite, the Jiu Huang Xia Jiao (Shrimp and Green Onion Dumplings) kick it up a notch with the pungent aroma of sautéed green onions and a phalanx of shrimp soldiers ready to stop up your mouth and turn back the Persian army. Ho!
Then there are the Yu Zi Shao Mai (Roe-topped Meatball Dumplings), the yang to the Xia Jiao's yin. Dense, meaty, and speckled with fish eggs, each pork and mushroom meatball is a hefty mouthful of bold flavor.
The god-king of the steamed dumplings are the Xiao Long Bao (Little Steamer Dumplings); each with a meaty nucleus bobbing in rich gelatin, barely restrained by a thin membrane.
Where the dim sum really gets interesting is with the specialty items. China Garden has a large and varied menu containing a number of popular favorites, like this Luo Buo Gao (Savory Turnip Cake). Slices of steamed rice flour cake containing shredded turnip and dried shrimp are pan fried to a crispy finish for a wonderful combination of textures and flavors.
You can't have dim sum without ordering Cha Shao Bao (Baked BBQ Pork Buns) at least once. With their sweet pork filling encased in an airy, brioche-like bread, these sticky buns are popular with diners of all ages.
The He Fen (Rice Noodle Sheets) are a familiar comfort food in both Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine. Rice flour batter is spread over a heated metal plate and steamed into thin sheets, then used to wrap either shrimp or thinly sliced beef and betal leaves. This version contains beef and is served with a sweetened soy sauce.
Pi Dan Shou Rou Zhou (Rice Porridge with Preserved Egg and Pork) is a taste I acquired from my mother. A gently stewed porridge made with chicken stock is seasoned with shreds of lean pork, cilantro, and minced pieces of "Thousand year egg". The black, earthy eggs aren't really from a thousand years ago. Rather, they're preserved in clay, which is spiked with lime, salt, and ash. The corrosive minerals "cook" the egg and give it its unique flavor. The subtle rice porridge is the perfect vehicle for spreading the unique flavor of the egg, punctuated by pork and cilantro, throughout your mouth.
My frequent accomplice in food adventuring, Elonweis, is the one who got me addicted to Xian Zhu Juan (Bean Curd Skin Roll). Seasoned pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots are rolled up in bean curd skin, deep fried, and then steamed with a savory brown sauce. While Elonweis's mother makes the best Xian Zhu Juan I've ever tried, her brother, Alphanarf, and I both find China Garden's an acceptable substitute, much like the sickly sweet rush of methadone is an acceptable substitute for crack. It stops the cravings, if only for a little while. Thank you, Trainspotting.
The Stewed Tripe is a revelation. A cow has four different stomachs, each with its own unique texture. This dish lets you enjoy every type, all enveloped in a sweet and complex red sauce. Try as we might, Alphanarf and I weren't able to decipher all of the ingredients. I'd bet money Chinese red vinegar was involved, though.
China Garden - A sure-fire crowd pleaser. Their flavors are consistent and authentic. Definitely a must-try place for dim sum.
Bill (just dim sum ranges)
A Items - 2.25
B Items - 3.25
C Items - 4.24
D Items - 5.25
E Items - 6.25
Flavor: A+ (averaged over three visits)
Irvine China Garden
14825 Jeffrey Rd
Irvine, CA 92618
Read more China Garden reviews from my food blogger friends.