Tag Archives: Orange County

Sinoinsocal? But You’re in NorCal…

Whenever I talk to someone about this blog, sometimes I’m asked why it’s called sinoinsocal. I mean, sure, I am Chinese but I certainly don’t live in Southern California. So what gives with this sort-of odd name?

Well let’s back track all the way back to 2011, a year and a half before I published my first post. As some of my readers know (and as it is outlined on my “about” page), my blog is dedicated in honor of my mom and it was in the fall of 2011 that my mom had a couple of severe strokes that precipitated to her passing in 2012. Because of her strokes, I immediately moved from Baltimore back to Southern California.

Pho Ga at Pho Nguyen Hue

Pho Ga at Pho Nguyen Hue

More specifically, I moved back to Irvine, where I graduated from college a couple years prior. It was during my time in college that I ate around Orange County amazingly diverse and large Asian communities. Whether it was some of the best pho I’ve ever had in Little Saigon or the most delicious bowls of beef noodle soup in Irvine’s various Taiwanese restaurants, eating Asian food in Orange County was such a delight.

But of course, most people’s vision of Orange County is something akin to what they have seen in the hit mid-2000s show “The OC” or the original version of The Real Housewives series set in the gated community of Coto de Caza. That is to say, the popular image is of rich white people with sun kissed skin, money for everything they want, and lots of time spent frolicking on the beach or shopping at high end malls. And while this kind of life is definitely representative of parts of Orange County, it’s really just a small portion of what, in reality, is one of the most diverse counties in the United States.

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Dim sum at J Zhou Oriental Cuisine

Orange County is home of the largest Vietnamese community in the United States with nearly 190,000 Vietnamese residents and strip mall after strip mall on streets like Bolsa and Brookhurst are filled with great specialists of specific Vietnamese dishes. Right next door is Garden Grove, with a large Korean community and some of the best Korean BBQ in Southern California. And just 15-20 minutes down the 405 or 5 (without traffic) is Irvine, where a huge Taiwanese community means there are multiple great places to get everything from Taiwanese fried chicken cutlets to bowls of lu rou fan. This doesn’t even include the large Persian and Latino communities in the county too.

So when I moved back to Southern California in the fall of 2011 to be closer to my mom, I wanted to showcase another side of Orange County, one filled with bowls of tasty pho instead of fake tans. Unfortunately, an opportunity to work a campaign for a now wonderful Congresswoman (and one of my best bosses ever) and my mom’s cardiac arrest and eventual passing meant I wouldn’t write a blog post until I lived in Denver.

Though with all those twists and turns (and 2 more moves later), I still think that more people should know about the wonderful Asian food that dots Orange County. Thankfully, a few other food writers with a more national audience has done that too. So before you head to Disneyland on your next trip, be sure to check out David Chan’s article and guide to Chinese food in Irvine or the Orange County Register’s guide to Little Saigon.

And if you want to know what are some of my favorite places in Orange County, here are a few below:

  • Broddard Restaurant – Great Vietnamese restaurant in Little Saigon
  • Cham Sut Gol – Wonderful Korean BBQ in Garden Grove
  • J Zhou Oriental Cuisine – The best dim sum in Orange County, almost rivaling those in the San Gabriel Valley
  • Pho Nguyen Hue – Some of the best chicken pho I’ve ever had
  • Yu’s Kitchen – Solid Taiwanese fair in Irvine
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J Zhou Oriental Cuisine, Tustin

J Zhou Oriental Cuisine
2601 Park Ave
Tustin, CA 92782

JZhou Interior

JZhou Interior

Since I was in Southern California for Thanksgiving week, I figured I would eat around some of the restaurants serving dim sum that opened within the past year or so. Conveniently, I had a haircut appointment at my favorite men’s salon in Irvine so I figured that I would tag along a lunch trip afterward at J Zhou, a restaurant that opened in June in the District shopping center on the old Tustin Air Force Base. It’s one of several Cantonese style restaurants that have opened in Irvine in recent years and I was eager to see how this place stacked up against the more refined and innovative dim sum places in the San Gabriel Valley that I wish I had in Irvine when I was still attending UCI.

I arrived at the restaurant about 12:30PM the day before Thanksgiving and got a table relatively easily. They did, however, run out of 2 top tables so I had to eat alone on a 4 top, which was awkward at first but not too bad. I took a look at their fair big list of dim sum items on their menu and ordered a few, detailed below:

Omasum in Spicy Wine

Omasum in Spicy Wine

  • Omassum In Spicy Wine (香茅辣酒牛柏葉) – The tripe was decent, though maybe a bit chewier than I am used to. I couldn’t taste the wine flavor too much, but the spicy broth was just right and gave the tripe a very nice and unique flavor I wouldn’t find at other dim sum restaurants.
Chinese Donut (You Tiao) at J Zhou

Chinese Donut (You Tiao) at J Zhou

  • Chinese Donut (傳統炸油條) – I admit, I was actually looking for the dessert item they called Chinese cruller (鳳凰蛋散) and should have looked at the Chinese name of the dish so I would have known. However, these you tiao were pretty great and perfectly fried – crunchy without being too hard and oily without being really greasy. It would have been even better had I ordered congee, but definitely still good without it.
House Shrimp Dumplings (Har Gow) at J Zhou

House Shrimp Dumplings (Har Gow) at J Zhou

  • House Shrimp Dumpling/Har Gow (凱悅軒蝦餃皇) – The shrimp was steamed very well with a very fresh taste and a light amount of ginger. The flaw, however, was the tougher and chewier than usual dumpling skin. This might indicate that there was too much water in the dough. Even with the imperfection though, it was one of the better shrimp dumplings I’ve had outside the SGV
Steamed Zucchini Topped With Dried Scallops

Steamed Zucchini Topped With Dried Scallops

  • Steamed Zucchini Topped With Dried Scallops (瑤柱節瓜甫) – This was undoubtedly my favorite dish of the meal. First, the dish came piping hot fresh out of the kitchen as it should; in fact it was so hot that I had to wait a few minutes to eat it. The melon wasn’t zucchini, but actually winter melon, which I like even better. The winter melon was steamed perfectly and its milder flavor balanced the shrimp and pork stuffing, along with the dried scallop garnish, perfectly. The pork and shrimp stuffing was excellently steamed and had a simple, fresh flavor. The dried scallops put this dish over the top and provided an excellent note to top off the dish. I admit, if I wasn’t getting full from eating dim sum alone, I would order a second one in a heartbeat.

The chrysanthemum tea was pretty good as well and seemed of higher quality that most dim sum places outside the San Gabriel Valley. Of course, I should probably mention that absolutely stunning decor with nicely upholstered chairs and possible Chihuly glass hanging from the ceiling that made me feel like I was at an elegant 4 or 5 star restaurant in Las Vegas than a dim sum palace in Irvine. However, the service, while decent for often rude and perfunctory dim sum palaces, could have been better to reflect its ambitious attempt to be a very upscale, refined Chinese restaurant in Orange County.

None of that, however, deters from the food which definitely puts it at the top of all dim sum palaces in Orange County. In fact, J Zhou can probably compete toe to toe with some of the best restaurants serving dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley. That’s no small feat given that the San Gabriel Valley has the two very best dim sum restaurants according to my dim sum rankings. So even though I don’t live in Irvine anymore, I’m glad that Orange County residents finally have top tier quality dim sum without having to deal with all the horrific traffic on the 5 or the 57 to get to Rosemead, Monterey Park, or Rowland Heights.

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The Best Dim Sum In America (Part 1)

A little over a month ago, when I linked to my blog post on Red Egg on Facebook, I made a half-serious joke about how should I have a “dim sum bracket” akin to Nate Silver’s “Burrito Bracket” on his FiveThirtyEight site. The burrito bracket, as Silver explains, was born out of his love of burritos and his then-recent 2007 move to the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He then started a food blog to document his search the best burrito in the neighborhood, NCAA March Madness style. However, his work for Baseball Prospectus and start of what would become FiveThirtyEight deferred his search in the middle of the bracket.

I was really captivated by Silver’s relaunch of the Burrito Bracket as a nationwide search to find out what was the “best” burrito in the country. Thus, I decided to actually launch my half-serious joke into a project to find the restaurant that serves the “best”  dim sum in the country (and when I mean dim sum, I mean the Cantonese style food and not others that may market itself as dim sum).

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Egg Custard Tarts at Sea Harbour

Of course, I don’t have Silver’s access to staff journalists, researchers, or a veritable selection committee of food journalists and celebrity chefs. However, I did have access to public access to crowd sourcing restaurant review sites, Chowhound discussion forums, and the online publications of numerous rankings of dim sum from various metropolitan areas. So I started similar to how Silver started his revived Burrito Bracket – Yelp.

Yelp scores and numbers of reviews may be a decent baseline, but even Silver himself acknowledges the potential flaws in Yelp. Renown Chinese food eater David Chan goes even further to describe the flaws of Yelp when searching for Chinese restaurants. Thus, I decided factor in other websites in creating my rankings, most notably Urbanspoon. Urbanspoon isn’t without its own flaws, but its another crowd sourcing restaurant view site used nationwide and I thought it would help balance some of the downsides of using Yelp. In addition, I factored in “bonus points” for the number of times a restaurant had been ranked as part of a list of best dim sum places in a metropolitan areas in the last two years by a food journalist and/or Chowhound. No ranking system is perfect, of course, but I thought that might be the best way in having a relatively objective rating system.

Critiques of the rating system (and scores for that matter) will be saved for another post, however, as I want to talk about some initial findings that I think are pretty fascinating in their own right.

In my search for the restaurant serving the best dim sum in America, I did a lot of scouring to find all these restaurants. All in all, I found at least 494 restaurants serving dim sum across 57 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. I got to 57 by searching for dim sum restaurants in both the 50 largest cities in America and the 50 largest metropolitan areas as defined by the Census Bureau. Honolulu falls below 50 in both categories, but has a significant population of those identifying as a person with Chinese descent so I included it too. In total, these metro areas account for 85% of all American residents that identify as Chinese in the 2010 census.

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Dim sum restaurant v. number of Chinese residents scatterplot

Afterward, I was curious to see the correlation between the amount of Chinese identified Americans in a metropolitan area and the amount of restaurants in the metropolitan area that serves dim sum. As you might think would be fairly logical, in general there is a pretty big correlation between the two. Using rudimentary and free statistics software by the website Alcula (as I don’t have access to SPSS, STATA, or other more sophisticated software), I found that the correlation coefficient between the two is pretty dramatic at 0.946 as you can see from the scatter plot above.

While that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, I was interested to see which metropolitan areas matched closest to the regression line and which were significant outliers. The two metropolitan areas that looked most in line were Washington, DC, at 13 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 106,721 Chinese people, and Dallas-Fort Worth, at 8 restaurants serving dim sum in a population with 55,568 Chinese people. Beyond those two metropolitan areas, I would say a vast majority of the other metropolitan areas were pretty close to the region with just a few major outliers.

The few outliers, however, were pretty significant. The most significant outliers, in fact, looked to have a lot MORE restaurants serving dim sum than their Chinese population would otherwise suggest. The two biggest in this case were the San Francisco Bay Area, with 72 restaurants serving dim sum in an area with just 649,496 Chinese people, and Seattle, with 33 restaurants serving dim sum for an area with just 100,763 Chinese people. This can be explained by the fact that both cities retain significant numbers of people with ancestry from Guangdong Province and/or ties to Hong Kong. Furthermore, both cities not only retain a significant and vibrant Chinatown filled with Cantonese families, unlike their counterparts in places like Los Angeles or Washington, DC, but they also have suburban areas with a significant number of Cantonese families are restaurants, like Bellevue in Seattle and Millbrae in San Francisco.

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

Dim Sum at Koi Palace

In contrast to San Francisco and Seattle is New York City, which has only 53 restaurants serving dim sum in the metropolitan area that is home to 705,721 Chinese people. This can also be explained by Chinese immigration patterns as the predominant majority of Chinese people that have immigrated to New York since the Immigration Act of 1965 have been from non-Cantonese areas of China, especially from Fujian, Taiwan, and Zhejiang. While the core of what most people see as Manhattan’s Chinatown is still predominantly Cantonese, it is dwarfed by Flushing’s much more diverse pan-Chinese Chinatown and is even smaller in land area than the Fujianese side of Manhattan Chinatown, just east of Bowery and along East Broadway.

Sacramento and San Diego also have less places serving dim sum as their Chinese populations would indicate. As a native San Diegan, my theory is that many Chinese families are willing to drive a couple hours to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, for their fix of really good dim sum on any given three day weekend.

Regardless, I feel the best finding in all my research is that in nearly every major metropolitan area of the United States, you won’t be far from a place that serves dim sum, most of them at least decent. Even in Albuquerque, with just a few thousand Chinese people, I’m never really more than a 20 minute drive from eating dim sum at Ming Dynasty.

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A&J, Irvine

A&J Restaurant
14805 Jeffrey Road #D
Irvine, CA 92618

After my delicious Dim Sum adventure at Sea Harbour, I ventured down to Irvine where I went to college and my brother currently lives and work. There is plenty that I miss about Orange County, including the number of delicious Asian food establishments (which was supposed to be the original intent of the blog). For dinner, I decided to take my brother and sister to one of my old favorites in Irvine, A&J.

Despite the numerous Taiwanese restaurants around the Walnut and Jeffrey intersection in Irvine, parking is always difficult and there is almost always a line at A&J. Fortunately, I found parking near the end of the lot and got a table of three with just a 10 minute wait. We sat down and I promptly started marking the menu sheet of items. My brother mainly wanted noodles, so I decided to get a couple noodle dishes (beef noodle soup, noodle soup with pork and preserved vegetables), some small plates (scallion pancakes and wontons in hot chili oil), as well as a bowl of marinated minced pork and tea smoked egg on rice.

A&J

The food came out at a decent pace, with the scallion pancakes and rice bowl coming out first. All of us loved the scallion pancakes, but only I ate the rice bowl as my brother complained that the marinated pork didn’t look appetizing compared to the same dish at Guppy’s. Regardless of the look, the rice bowl was good, even if it lacked some of the refined flavor and texture across the street at Liang’s Kitchen or Yu’s Garden. The noodle soup bowls came next and, as usual, the beef noodle soup was a definite winner. The pork and preserved vegetable noodle soup was good too, but it’s lighter flavors and textures could not compare to the bold richness of the beef noodle soup. The wontons were a hit as well, with the hot chili oil matching perfectly with the beef filled wontons.

While the food was great, the service was lacking. This A&J typically only has 2 servers, and with such a constant demand and flow it is hard for them to do everything well and to focus on the customer experience. It took us flagging down a server twice before she gave us cups of ice water and it took forever til either the teapot or cups of water were refilled. The service here is noticeably worse than there locations in Annandale, VA and Rockville, MD which consistently have at least 3 servers who are very courteous.

However, it’s really hard to complain when you can feed 3 young people 5 dishes within $32, tax and tip included. Of course, it’s a cash only establishment, which means you should go to the ATM beforehand. I personally prefer the Rockville branch, but the Irvine location holds its own against fierce competition across the street.

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Mother’s Day Tribute

As my brother and his girlfriend know, I originally wanted to start this a year ago with the idea of having a blog dedicated to Chinese food in Orange County and San Diego. Specifically, I wanted to focus on Orange County as it has a growing Chinese food scene with the explosive development of Chinese restaurants in Irvine and the rest of the 949. Given such an increase in quality Chinese food, but with a dearth of blogs covering it, as most of them focus on LA/San Gabriel Valley or San Diego.

However, I had several events in my life that pulled me away from the project. I got a job in New Mexico working to elect Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham. Then my mom had a cardiac arrest and eventually passed away in October. Finally, I moved to Denver to work for a nonprofit. Needless to say, a project focusing on the fabulous Chinese food of Orange County had to be shelved temporarily.

Now that I have settled down a little bit, I have decided to relaunch this blog as a tribute to my mom for mother’s day. My mom loved all types of Asian food, especially Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese and it would seem appropriate to write this blog on behalf of her memory.

Of course, now that I live in Denver we will have to shift the focus from Orange County to Asian places across the country that I have and will be eating at. A lot of the focus will be in Denver, where I live now, and Southern California, where I visit a few times a year. However, from time to time I’ll also write about the Asian food I have eaten in places where I lived before, like Baltimore, and visited, like New York City. I hope this will be a tribute that would make my mom proud.

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