I remember quite vividly, the last time I’m here. We are taking my grandmother out for lunch and she is still mobile enough to travel around in her wheelchair. She passed away five years ago — and I don’t remember visiting again after that time possibly six or more years ago. It isn’t for any particular reason that I have not eaten here since then. But recently, on Chinese New Year’s day last month, I am sharing a meal with one of the most respected food writers in Orange County and this is where we end up ringing in the Year of the Goat.
It is always difficult to convince my son to eat at a Chinese restaurant. I believe our trip to Hong Kong a few years ago has developed an inner Chinese food snob in him. Therefore, I am very surprised — delighted in fact — that ever since our meal at Chef Chen, he has been bugging me about going back there.
This is my comfort food — the kind I remember my mother cooking. It is also what my son remembers eating as a child because I have prepared it for him. It is no surprise we both find the flavors here like a warm comfortable blanket, enveloping us on a slightly chilly night.
This post combines dishes from both meals, some of dishes we eat on both visits. I do not have the prices for the dishes, nor do I have the exact English name of the dishes, however, it shouldn’t be a problem when ordering. Rock Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce is fried to perfection, and covered in sauce dotted with julienned bamboo shoots, wood ear fungus, scallions, onions and carrots. It is not something you order unless you have four or more people, as it is quite the commitment. However, it is absolutely worth picking through the bones and devouring every little morsel of flesh you can find.
Dried Beancurd with Shredded Pork (香干炒肉丝) is an all-time favorite. I make it at home, but it never comes out the same way because my stove just doesn’t emit the kind of heat required to stir-fry correctly. The boy has around 10 dishes he loves, and this ranks pretty high on that list.
Another is Shanghai-style Rice Cakes (上海炒年糕). There are different varieties of rice cakes on the menu, and while I like the “white” version with preserved mustard greens (雪菜), I love the Shanghai-style best. It is traditionally prepared with dark soy sauce, bits of shredded pork, mushrooms and Napa cabbage. Here, some spinach and bamboo shoots are added for color and flavor.
As a child, I absolutely hated eating loofah (絲瓜). It was a dilemma because everyone in my family loves it, except me. It’s been decades since I’ve eaten this squash and when Loofah, Tofu Sheet and Edamame (絲瓜,百页,毛豆) comes to the table on New Year’s Day, I eat some so not to be rude. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked. Palates change through the years, and mine definitely is not the same as it was 20 years ago. I can’t wait to tell my mom about this revelation — she’ll scold me and tell me I’m silly because loofah has always been delicious.
Eggplant and Tofu Pot (茄子, 豆腐煲) is one of my grandmother’s favorite dishes — and mine as well. The one here has a handful of basil thrown in, adding a heavenly aroma to this vegetarian offering. It is served traditional style — in a claypot — which helps retain the heat. Some restaurants serve this with chunks of roast pork, but I like it sans meat much better.
Of course, no visit to Chef Chen is complete without Beef Roll (牛肉捲餅). A “pancake” similar to Chinese scallion pancake is filled with five-spice beef, scallions, cucumbers and hoisin sauce, then rolled up to form a sammie. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t like this dish.
A myriad of restaurants offer this, but only a handful of them are up to my son’s standards. Right now, Chef Chen’s ranks number one on his list, followed by Peking Restaurant in Westminster, then 101 Noodle Express (next door to Chef Chen’s). This beef roll stands out because it’s less greasy and not overly sauced. My complaint with Peking Restaurant’s is that they tend to be very heavy handed with the hoisin — ask them to serve it on the side.
My renewed love for this place is made even better by my son’s love for it. Whenever I suggest eating at a Chinese restaurant, he will make a face, and then proceed to argue why we shouldn’t. It is a battle I’m not willing to fight, so we end up eating Korean or Vietnamese. In some way, this is a victory for me. I only hope it lasts for just a little while.
5408-B Walnut Avenue
Irvine, CA 92604
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