The clink of chopsticks against plastic bowls. The sweet sizzle of frying dough. Happy chatter. The dull grind of rickety chairs being pulled up to tables. The muffled roar of passing traffic. Gossip. Excited laughter.
Street dining in Asia is unlike anything that can be experienced in the West. Whole families of hawkers devote generations to creating, refining, and protecting secret recipes dished up on demand from yoke-carried braziers, hand-drawn carts, and portable outdoor restaurants that can be set up and broken down in mere minutes. You see them everywhere, drawing commuters and travelers with alluring trails of fragrant smoke.
No Asian county is without them; not Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, or Korea. Boundless China, with over 27 ethnic tribes and 8 Treasured Cuisines is practically bursting with glorious regional street fare few Americans have ever sampled. Fortunately for Orange County residents, Irvine is home to A&J Restaurant (Ban Mu Yuan), a branch of an internationally popular Taiwanese chain specializing in Northern Chinese street food. Within the walls of this humble cafe, authentic dishes are served up in a no frills, no fuss atmosphere.
Niu Rou Shao Bing (Chinese Sesame Bread with Five Spice Braised Beef)
China's Northern provinces are too arid and cold for rice cultivation. As such, their cuisine is characterized by a focus on hardier grains, such as wheat, millet, barley, and sorghum. Without rice, different types of bread, dumplings, noodles, and porridges evolved. The by-products of these grains, such as hay, were well-suited to feeding goats and cattle, which could also survive by grazing. Beef and mutton became the central sources of protein, and are found in most Northern Chinese dishes. The food at A&J Restaurant reflects these regional characteristics.
Wood is less than abundant in Northern China, so ovens are virtually unknown. Instead of baking, Northern Chinese breads and dumplings are fried in woks, effectively utilizing brief cooking times over intense direct heat. The results are stunning. Flaky breads with amazing textures. Juicy dumplings with resilient, yet crispy wrappers. A&J's Xian Rou Guo Tie (Pan Fried Pork Dumplings) are superb examples of the fried starch arts. You'd be hard pressed to find more perfect pot stickers.
Instead of rice, which is the universal starch in most parts of China, noodles are the staple food of the North. The Chinese have as many forms of pasta as the Italians, the most popular of which is Niu Rou Mian (Beef Noodle Soup), a dish that originated in the northern province of Sichuan. A&J's Hong Shao Ge Ban Mian (Sichuan Beef & Tendon Noodle Soup) comes with tender chunks of braised beef and tendon bobbing in a fiery stock. Diners have their choice between thin, machine-made noodles and thick, hand-cut noodles. Always go with the hand cut noodles. You can't beat the taste and texture folded into each slippery strand.
For those who miss it, A&J Restaurant offers several entrees that are served with rice. However, their Xiao Mi Zhou (Plain Millet & Corn Congee) is a more traditional accompaniment.
Hong You Du Si (Sliced Beef Tripe with Red Sauce)
Congee is a thick porridge of stewed grains normally eaten with tapas-like dishes of cold cuts that are another of A&J's specialties. Chewy curls of beef tripe drizzled with fiery chili oil. Meltingly soft beef tendon is a pungent garlic sauce. Braised pigs' feet, unctuous knobs of meat and fat clinging tenuously to bone. Cheap and flavorful, each of A&J's many small plates adds depth to their comforting millet porridge.
Kao Fu (Vegetarian Delight)
Like rice, most vegetables also have limited survivability in the harsh northern climes, which is why the cuisine features starch and meat. Fortunately for vegetarians, soy beans are tough little buggers. Vegan meat substitutes made from soy or wheat abound. A&J offers a variety of small plates suitable for strict Buddhists, earth children, and other meat eschewers. Cucumber salad in a mustard sauce guaranteed to melt every hair in your nostrils. Delicately braised wheat gluten, soybean, and mushrooms in a rich sauce. Springy sheets of bean curd skin punched up with tangy pickled mustard greens. A gentle salad of smoked tofu, slices celery, and shredded carrot. It's all authentic and delicious.
A&J Restaurant - Bringing the flavors of Northern Chinese street fare to Orange County. Close your eyes and imagine the hustle and bustle of Beijing.
Niu Rou Shao Bing (Chinese Sesame Bread with Five Spice Braised Beef) - 2.50
Xian Rou Guo Tie (Pan Fried Pork Dumplings) - 5.75
Hong Shao Ge Ban Mian (Sichuan Beef & Tendon Noodle Soup) - 5.75
Xiao Mi Zhou (Plain Millet & Corn Congee) - 0.75
Hong You Du Si (Sliced Beef Tripe with Red Sauce) - 1.95
Kao Fu (Vegetarian Delight) - 1.95
14805 Jeffrey Rd., Ste. D
Irvine, CA 92618
A&J has branches scattered across Taiwan, China, and the US, including locations in Cupertino (CA), Rockville (MD), and Annandale (VA).
Read my friend JoanH's review, chinese/mall food: i strongly recommend BAN MU YUAN, on A Hungry Girl's Guide to Taipei.
My good buddy Kirk from mmm-yoso!!! hit up the Irvine A&J last year. Check out his review, Road Trip: A & J Restaurant - Irvine(OC).