How Irvine, CA Became a Chinese Dining Destination

David R. Chan

Photo by sputnik / Flickr

In my previous articles about Chinese dining in Los Angeles, I have only incidentally mentioned the Orange County community of Irvine. However, this omission should not be interpreted as minimizing Irvine’s importance on the Chinese food scene, as indeed Irvine ranks second in the Los Angeles metropolitan area behind only the San Gabriel Valley as the preferred source of authentic Chinese food. Rather, I haven’t said much about Irvine because of its geographic distance, some 40 miles from both Los Angeles Chinatown and the San Gabriel Valley, and 55 miles from the Westside of Los Angeles. As such, Irvine’s Chinese food options are seldom appreciated by diners from these other areas.

Irvine is a city of roughly 250,000 people. Visually, it is unlike any other city of its size in the United States. Irvine was built from scratch beginning in the early 1970s as a planned community on parts of the previously undeveloped Irvine Ranch, which comprised 15 percent of the total land area of Orange County. Irvine is a city with no downtown business district, and with no stores or businesses fronting the city’s major thoroughfares. For that matter, there is no street parking permitted on the major boulevards, meaning no corner restaurants, gas stations, or stores. Rather, all retail activity is confined to about 30 neighborhood shopping centers whose buildings are generally set back from the street, with signage strictly controlled and not particularly visible.

Interestingly, Irvine’s status as a center of Chinese activity and particularly Chinese dining is a 21st-century phenomenon. The Chinese presence in Irvine was negligible for the first two decades of Irvine’s existence, though like every other city in America, Irvine did have its obligatory Americanized Chinese restaurants serving chop suey and New York-style Chinese food, such as Northwood China Garden and Chinatown Restaurant. While Irvine did gradually build up an Asian presence, the Chinese were among the last to discover its neighborhoods after the Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans. They did, however, populate the University of California Irvine campus, whose initials UCI have humorously been said to stand for the University of Chinese Immigrants for many years.

In the early 1990s, I remember being stunned when I encountered an Irvine restaurant called China West. In addition to General Tso’s chicken and multiple varieties of chop suey dishes, the restaurant offered fried oysters, whole lobster, and whole crab on its menu. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the flow of Chinese residents into Irvine began in earnest, initially with Taiwanese immigrants attracted by the excellent school system. Because there is a customary lag time between Chinese settlement of a geographic area and the appearance of Chinese stores and authentic Chinese restaurants, the first authentic Chinese restaurants opened in Irvine in 1998. The Arbor Village Shopping Center on the corner of Jeffrey Road and Walnut Avenue welcomed its first two Chinese restaurants with Cantonese dim sum and seafood restaurant China Garden, still in operation today, and the Hong Kong-style café O’Shine Kitchen. O’Shine Kitchen eventually closed, but other family members revived the name and now operate a Taiwanese café just over the border in the city of Tustin. China Garden and O’Shine Kitchen were quickly followed in Arbor Village by the first Taiwanese restaurant, A & J Restaurant, also still in operation today, and shortly thereafter in the Orange Tree Shopping center across Walnut Avenue by the Cantonese-style S.W. BBQ Seafood, and the Taiwanese Yu’s Garden, both still open. In the late 1990s, the Sam Woo chain also opened up a location in Culver Center.

With Irvine’s unique commercial and retail layout, the expansion of Chinese dining naturally followed its own path. Chinese dining in the San Gabriel Valley spread from block to block, with dedicated Chinese shopping centers being developed as the community grew. In Irvine, by contrast, the Chinese influence first focused on the existing Arbor Vista and Orange Tree shopping centers, then essentially moved on after these two centers filled up with Chinese establishments. Orange Tree is now home to a dozen Chinese eateries, including branches of 101 Noodle Express, Tofu King, and JJ Bakery, as well as Chong Qing Mei Wei Szechwan and the newly opened Royal Dumpling and Noodle.

While there were a small number of random one-off Chinese restaurant openings in other Irvine shopping centers over the years, the next significant event was the opening of the new, pan-Asian Diamond Jamboree center in late 2008. Diamond Jamboree was the landing spot for the first US location of Taiwan’s now legendary 85°C Bakery and Café. The opening of 85°C created a frenzy never before seen in the Chinese American food world, with customers regularly queuing up for an hour or more for the chance to purchase 85°C’s buttery pastries and salted coffee drinks. The crowds would not subside until two years later when 85°C opened a number of branches in Los Angeles county. 85°C was joined at Diamond Jamboree by the Hong Kong-style Capital Seafood Restaurant, and later by eateries such as Chef Hung Noodles, Meet Fresh Taiwanese desserts, and the new branch of Mama Lu’s Dumpling House.

As the Chinese influence in Irvine has spread, most every shopping center here is home to one or more Chinese restaurants. There’s even an Uyghur restaurant, Kashgar Grill. But the latest big news is the transformation of Irvine’s largest neighborhood center, Culver Center, into a powerhouse of Chinese dining. For many years the center’s only Chinese food options were Sam Woo Seafood, later followed by J.J. Bakery and Café, and Tea Station. However, Culver Center is becoming the location of choice for newly opened Chinese restaurants, including local branches of San Gabriel Valley favorites Tasty Garden and Tasty Noodle House, as well as Popcorn Chicken, Panda Express, and international chain Little Sheep Hotpot. The most telling development of where Culver Center and Irvine, are headed, was the landlord’s refusal to renew the lease of the Marie Callender Restaurant in order to accommodate the newly opened 6,000 square foot branch of the mainland Chinese restaurant chain, Meizhou Dongpo.

Irvine’s Chinese population continues to grow, increasing the demand for Chinese food. But Irvine’s shopping centers may be running out of space for new entrants, as indicated by two significant recent openings in the city of Tustin, immediately west of Irvine. The upscale dim sum and Hong Kong seafood specialist J. Zhou, cousin to notable San Gabriel Valley restaurants of the same ilk, Happy Harbor and Grand Harbor, opened up in the District shopping center in Tustin. And Alhambra’s darling Sichuan Impression has opened up in the same shopping center as O’Shine Taiwanese Kitchen.

"How Irvine, CA Became a Chinese Dining Destination" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.