I first recall hearing about Chef Chen on Elmo Monster's Blog (man, have you really been around for eight years???). After seeing a post on Chef Chen on Eileen's blog, with a pretty decent looking bowl of Niu Rou Mian, I had pretty much made up my mind. Also, we'd already tried out A&J which really didn't suit our tastes and a very, very, bad visit to Liang's in the same strip mall which was so terrible I never even posted about it. So why not make it a tri-fecta and check out Chef Chen's?
I sure must have been motivated since this is one of those parking lots I detest. One single exit/entrance, folks without any regard of right of way, people just plain parking in the middle of the aisle, people stealing spaces from folks patiently waiting for folks to leave by going around them and gunning into a spot. Man, this place has it all....they should have a reality show based on parking lots..... I made it a point to arrive a bit early, then stretched my legs by taking a walk and checking out how things have changed since the last time I've been here.
I entered the restaurant a few minutes after they opened and had a seat. The menu is a mix of different dishes, everything from typical Chinese fast food (which didn't look half bad) to Dao Xian Mian and even something that really interested me(more on that later). The prices, especially for the lunch specials and items from the "Northern dishes" menu were very reasonable...as was my bowl of Niu Rou Mian at $5.99:
I liked the color of the broth, which was decent and in my opinion better than Liang's (thin with no beef flavor) or A&J (oily but without flavor). Still not beefy enough, nor without enough five spice flavor, the spice level was nice. Be warned that the meat used is a very traditional beef shank which is a bit on the chewy side, though full of flavor. The noodles are nothing special, but were cooked to a nice chewy texture. This was not bad and actually better than I thought it would be.
I also saw something on the menu that I couldn't resist getting....Dao Ko Shao Ji. When we lived in LA, one of my favorite things was Dao Ko Chicken, from of all places Hong Kong Market. I'd tried Dao Ko Shao Ji from just about every place in the area and still enjoyed the one from Hong Kong Market. Then the market did a renovation and the deli case was gone.....sigh. I really missed my chicken. To the point that my Mother In-Law got in touch with an uncle who is a chef in Henan and he sent us a recipe. Read the post....it's a hoot!
When I arrived home and opened the container, the first thing that struck me was how much this looked like Earthen's Shandong Chicken. However, it lacked the sweetness with a touch of vinegar and in fact was kinda bland other than the super strong pungency from the raw garlic topping the chicken. It was one of those dishes that looked much better than it was.
Still, the prices were reasonable, and I really thought the service was excellent. The woman who served me was quite good, no wasted motion and very aware of her tables. She arrived with extra napkins just when I needed it, as soon as I pushed my bowl back she arrived to ask if all was well, then handed me my check. She then arrived with my chicken as soon as I placed money on the plastic tray. She was also quite friendly and nice and put up with my bogus (non-existent) Mandarin quite well........
5408-B Walnut Ave
Irvine, CA 92604
One interesting thing I noticed in across the street and maybe if Elmo reads this he can answer it for me.....what's with the line outside Taiko?