9/22/2008

Chef Chen (Northern Dim Sum) - Irvine, CA

(Pictures for this review taken with my Canon PowerShot SD800is.)

It's always difficult when a favorite restaurant closes. There's emptiness in your soul from the removal of something familiar and comforting. A place that used to bring you pleasure is gone, taking with it all the small memories housed within. Given the high failure rate of restaurant ventures, it's an ache all too familiar to foodies.


(Chef Chen took over New Shanghai's home for over a decade.)


When our beloved New Shanghai closed, Cat and I found ourselves adrift, castaways without the safe harbor of our usual Saturday morning brunch spot. For a while, we flitted from eatery to eatery, searching for something to fill the hole in our weekend routine. We were unsuccessful. It's hard to find a replacement for a restaurant you frequented for over nine years. Yet, all good things must come to an end. Cat and I eventually accepted New Shanghai's departure and turned to its successor, Chef Chen, with open arms.


(Stylishly redecorated.)


Serving a blend of Shanghai and Taiwanese cuisine dishes, Chef Chen has been repeatedly recommended to me by my readers. Its collection of authentic dishes rarely found in this part of Southern California have generated favorable buzz amongst the local Chinese community. There are some who contend that Chef Chen is the best Chinese restaurant in Irvine, placing it squarely in a head-to-head, North vs. South battle with reigning champion China Garden.


(Cashew Nut Chicken)


It's a fight that Chef Chen is more than capable of holding its own in, with a selection of superb Northern Dim Sum dishes and a stunning number of entrees. Given the sheer size of Chef Chen's menu, this review will focus on Chef Chen's Northern-style dim sum. I'll follow up with a review on their entrees at a later date.



Cat and I usually visit Chef Chen for our weekend brunch. When we do, the Niu Rou Dao Xiao Tang Mian (Beef and Knife-shaved Noodle Soup) is a must have. Beef noodle soup is to the Chinese what pho is to the Vietnamese; a quintessential breakfast or late night snack. Chef Chen's contains generous chunks of beef slowly simmered in a complex stock perfumed with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and other spices. What make this soup special are the thick ribbons of handmade noodles, made by shaving them from a ball of dough directly into a wok of boiling water. The texture, tender, yet chewy and resilient, is perfect for slurping with the flavorful broth and can only be mastered after years of study.



Since rice is difficult to grow in northern China, the cuisine focuses on breads, noodles, and other wheat-based products. This Jing Dong Rou Bing (Jing Dong-style Meat Cake) is a flat meat pastry filled with a mixture of marinated pork, ginger, scallions, and other seasonings. The flavor is reminiscent of potstickers, although the thinness of the pie provides greater surface area for frying and more crunch.



Dumplings in Northern Dim Sum are made with wheat-flour wrappers, as opposed to the rice or egg wrappers favored in the South, and seasoned much more aggressively. Chef Chen's Hong You Chao Shou (Red Oil Wontons) are juicy parcels of pork and shrimp served in a thick, sweet and spicy sauce. Despite the lurid crimson oil, the heat is mild and easily enjoyed.



A must-order at Chef Chen is the Xiao Long Tang Bao (Steamed Soup Dumplings). Their delicate, resilient skins somehow manage to contain a prodigious amount of unctuous broth, which burst forth like geysers when their protective membranes are punctured. The nuggets of meat floating in each pouchy prison are almost an afterthought.



The undisputed kings of Chef Chen's Northern Dim Sum lineup are the Niu Rou Xian Bing (Beef Rolls). Flaky Chinese flatbread, similar to croissants in richness of consistency, is rolled around slices of five-spice beef, shredded scallions, cilantro, and hoisin sauce. The freshness of the herbs, the flavorful beef, and the tender bread fit together perfectly. It's almost enough to make me forget what I'm missing. Almost.


Chef Chen - You can never replace the loss of a favorite restaurant, but sometime what follows can be just as special in its own way.


Bill:

Cashew Nut Chicken - 7.99
Beef and Knife-shaved Noodle Soup - 5.99
Jing Dong-style Meat Cake - 5.99
Red Oil Wontons - 4.99
Steamed Soup Dumplings - 4.99
Beef Rolls - 6.99


Flavor: A
Ambience: A
Service: A
ROI: A

Overall: A


Chef Chen
5408-B Walnut Ave.
Irvine, CA 92612
1-949-786-8898

15 comments:

I like this place especially there deep fried morsel of spare ribs. It's so so so good. I'm not a big fan of the beef roll due to the fact that the cut of meat I got in my bite contained a crap load of connective tissues. I would of needed teeth like that dude in James Bond movie to gnawed thru it. But I do need to try that beef and hand cut noodle soup it sounds so YUMMY!

I seriously have to try this place. Every time I intend to go, I end up at Nice Time Deli. This happens every time.

But now that I know they have good XLB, I really have to commit.

wow, I've been craving dim sum for so long but didn't know where to get it (other than Sam Woo) in Irvine. Thanks! :D

Mnmm ,the cashew nut chicken sure looks delicious! Nice blog!

Everything looks wonderful. I'll have to make sure to stop by the next time I'm up in Irvine.

I never heard of Northern style dim sum but everything sure looked good. Makes me hungry for those Northern style pancakes with the spring onions. Hey, CP, do you know if there's a good Northern style Chinese restaurant in Northern California. ;-) I think Taiwan restaurant is just OK.

Wow! I wish this was here when I was still in CA. Most of my friends live in Irvine, so there's a good chance that I'll stop by here during one of my visits.

That onion meat cake looks delicious. How does their xiao long bao compare to other restaurants in the area?

Reminds me of the Taiwanese breakfast beef rolls :)

Far as I can tell there is no such thing as dim sum in New Orleans. I am green with envy. Those beef rolls look delish and remind me of the "Chinese hamburgers" I used to enjoy in Xi'an....nom nom nom. And onion pancake..sigh...

Those beef rolls look scrumptious, like a Chinese version of Beef Wellington.

That knife-shaved beef noodle soup is killing me, too.

oh yeah everything looks great... I'm cursed to be reading this before dinner - oh that beefy soup with the shaved noodles is calling out my name!

Bill,

Suckage on the connective tissue. It should normally be stewed until the gelatin has dissolved, leaving the meat soft and tender. However, the hand-cut beef noodle rules!

Elmo,

It's hard, with so many good Taiwanese restaurants in the area. I'm always trying to go to Nice Time Deli, and I always end up in Ay Chung. Go figure. =D

Yumdish,

You're welcome. But, this is Northern-style dim sum. For Cantonese dim sum in Irvine better than Sam Woo serves, go to Crystal Jade on Quail Hill Parkway or China Garden on the corner of Jeffrey and Walnut.

Pete,

Thanks!

Carol,

Please do. I'm also sure that Kirk at mmm-yoso!!! can give you plenty of recommendations on where to find these dishes in the San Diego area.

Chef Ben,

There are a couple that come to mind. Darda Seafood in Milpitas and Fatima Restaurant in Cupertino are both great. There's also the A&J in Cupertino. Of course, those are a good hour or more South of you.

Christine,

Stay safe over there in Ohio.

Shaved Ice Sundays,

Their XLB are probably the best in the area. They're the only ones I've had which come close to the ones Red Onion served before it closed.

Tigerfish,

That's exactly what they are. =)

Faine,

I've heard many a similar lament. Best of luck finding a decent Chinese watering hole in that area.

Michele,

It was all nummy in my tummy.

Foodhoe,

That's why I try not to read your food blog before bed. Unfulfilled food lust makes for odd dreams.

- CP

Hey CP, we went to CC for lunch today after checking your blog - good call.

I mentioned on one of your previous posts that we've been going to Thanh Mai for 7-8 years and were pleased to see it among your A rankings.

If you're into Mexican food, the best place we've found so far is Los Arcos in Santa Ana. It has all the requisite components: sauces seem to be made from scratch, waite staff can't speak English, non-white clientele, etc.

I guess it's located in an old Denny's and is "fancy" enough to be where families/dates go out to celebrate special occasions. It's right across the street from Mater Dei HS, so it's easy to find if you're in the mood.

Anon,

Thanks for the tip! I'll add it to my list of places to check out.

- CP