Meizhou Dongpo, a 150-large restaurant conglomerate in China made its way onto the LA dining scene several years ago. Now, it has opened its first location in Orange County, taking over the old Marie Callender space in Irvine’s Culver Plaza. Its name is derived from 10th century poet Su Dongpo, and the city he is from. Besides poetry, Su was also well-known as a calligrapher, statesman of the Song Dynasty, as well as a gastronome.
If you’re familiar with the old restaurant, you’ll immediately notice that the makeover is impressive, with décor completely assembled with furnishings directly imported from China. The ambiance is stunning, exuding that sophistication and opulence which J Zhou tries hard to emulate, but falls short in so many ways.
Although Meizhou Dongpo has only been opened a short few days, they have been on point and ready for business since day one. My first experience is at a media preview, days before opening. Upon return after its opening, the wait is an hour and a half, crawling with Chinese families and millennials.
A handful of cold appetizers is always the way to start. Brined Duck Tongue ($12) brimming with the soy flavors is indeed briny, but also packed with flavor. Make sure you don’t swallow the cartilage after you’ve gnawed your way around the gelatinous strip.
Mung Bean Jelly ($9) is always one of my favorites. The mung bean noodles are bathed in a spicy marinade, which may be too much heat for some, but I love it. The noodles are a tad mushy, even though the flavors are exquisite.
Bang Bang Chicken ($12) is similar to “saliva chicken”— using poached chicken as its base. The dish looks intense, but doesn’t possess much heat. There is a visible film of oil in the bowl, but never cloying on the palate. It is salty, but so addicting, with varying textures from the peanuts, wood ear mushrooms and dried yuba sheets, all soaking up the mouth-tingling bath infused with the “ma la” properties of Sichuan peppercorns.
Perhaps the most surprising dish is Avocado with Roasted Chili ($9.90) purely due to its simplicity. Chunks of avocado are tossed in a sesame, soy and vinegar dressing, with a wicked amount of minced garlic. Although its title has ‘chili’ in it, I do not detect any heat. It is one of the most addicting things you’ll ever eat.
Minced Chicken Pudding in Soup ($9/each) should be enjoyed before you embark on any of the heavily seasoned dishes. Your taste-buds will be compromised, masking the glorious subtleties of this luxurious tonic. The chicken is light as air reminiscent of a light matzo ball. Simply sublime!
Next, an array of dishes — misses for me – such as Dongpo Sausage ($22) a house-made item reminiscent of “lap cheung” – Chinese preserved sausage – is too sweet for me. Beef in Black Pepper Sauce ($27) and Kung Pao Shrimp ($23) though on the menu, should not be the focus of your meal when ordering. Frankly, they are better elsewhere. Serrano Pepper Beef ($22) a house specialty is again, too sweet, and not to my liking. Some of my table mates do not share the same sentiment.
Spicy Chicken ($20) or “la zi ji” may be daunting when you see it on the menu. Visually it is a plate of dried chiles dotted with bits of fried chicken, and strips of fried potato. However, DO NOT let it deter you. It isn’t spicy. The chiles are meant to perfume the chicken and potato strips and give it a touch of heat. Having said that, I prefer the version at Chongqing Mei Wei where the pieces of chicken are larger, and more pronounced flavors.
Meizhou Roast Duck ($77) is a house-specialty with the lure of having a chef carve it tableside. I like that pancakes are used instead of buns — as it is served in Hong Kong — and what I am familiar with. Our duck is leaner than expected, and somewhat tasteless. I am expecting that distinctive pop of duck, with a little greasy juice running down the side of my mouth when biting into it. but it isn’t there. However, the skin is crispy, and stays crispy for a while.
When the server asks if you want to make your own duck parcels or you’d like them to wrap them for you, please, PLEASE say you’ll wrap your own. By the time the duck is carved, wrapped by the server, and placed in your mouth, it’s going to be cold!
If you’re into serious spice, look no further than Royal Hot Pot ($23) a dish especially created for the Princess of Thailand on her 60th birthday. The broth is infused with chiles to achieve that flaming color. Then, an array of ingredients such as lotus root, wood ear fungus, beef, quail eggs, soybean sprouts etc are added to it. Once it starts bubbling, it’s time to eat!
You’ll be looking for something lighter now, and there are vegetables to the rescue. String Beans ($15) is good, just as expected by looking at its blistering skin.
My grandma was a bamboo shoot fiend, and would always prepare various styles of bamboo shoots whenever they’re season. Wok-Fried Bamboo Shoots ($17) are delightfully crunchy, tossed in a slightly sweet soy sauce. I like that they do not inundate this delicate dish with too many ingredients. Grandma would be proud!
A selection of dim sum and starches are usually served at the end of a Chinese meal, just in case you’re still hungry. As Chinese custom goes, it is nothing worse for a host than to have his guests leave his table still hungry. This is why my grandma used to order enough for 20 when there is only 12 at the table.
So with that, I high suggest ordering Dan Dan Noodles ($6). They’re slippery and covered in the tongue-numbing ground pork sauce that’s the epitome dan dan noodles. This authentic version is not thick, and sludge-like usually served at restaurants around OC. These are chewy noodles swimming in a light, almost brothy sauce. This is the real thing!
As much as I loved the dan dan noodles, I didn’t care so much for the Meizhou Pork Buns ($5/each) fluffy balls stuffed with a slightly sweet meat filling. Nor did I enjoy Dongpo Shumai ($8/4pcs) rice flour pouches bursting with minced meat. They are savory, albeit very oily. Potstickers ($7/6pcs) are aesthetically pleasing, however, a leathery wrapper with an over-handled nugget of ground pork, is not enjoyable. Stay away from the Fried Rice ($12) if you’re a fan of Cantonese-style Yang Chow Fried Rice. This is bland and too “wet” in my mouth.
There are several desserts on the menu which I’d like to try on future visits. Crispy Sticky Rice Cake ($7.80) though, is best when eaten as soon as it hits the table. The warm mochi-like nuggets are topped with a molasses-based sauce and a sprinkling of soybean powder. It is not sweet, but satiates that longing for something to ease the palate after that explosion of flavors.
I am elated that there is finally a Chinese restaurant in Orange County that is of this caliber. The décor is stunning. Pair with that attentive service, and some great dishes and it is clear, I WILL be back!
15363 Culver Drive
Irvine, CA 92604