Sunday, June 11, 2006

Ay-Chung Noodle - Irvine



The folks at Nice Time Deli must not be happy. Right across from them, literally not more than twenty feet away, a new competitor has sprung up. And not just any challenger. It's Ay-Chung Noodle, which carries with it the name recognition of a popular Taiwanese chain that already has stores in Rowland Heights, Milpitas, and elsewhere.

This new Irvine outpost takes over the space vacated by the failed Bin Bin Konjac -- a store hocking icy slush topped with gelatin -- which was not more than a few years old when it folded. Only time will tell whether the Irvine Ay-Chung will have better luck. But if the crowd I encountered there last Saturday evening was any indicator, Nice Time Deli is right to be worried.

Wait time for a table was thirty minutes on average -- amazing when you realize that restaurant operates on the Carl's Jr. model.

On this night, the busiest I've seen it since the grand opening a few weeks ago, numbered tickets were given out to those waiting to dine in, which included yours truly.

When my number was finally called, I was assigned another number. This time it was the numerical I.D. of my table, which was being bussed by some very short Latinas in Ay-Chung baseball caps. Next, I stood in a line which snaked its way to the cashier. Once I found myself at the head of the queue, I placed my order, proclaimed the preassigned table number where I'd be sitting, and then paid for the meal -- in cash, of course.

Afterwards, I elbowed my way through the wall of people still standing in line to order, to my table where my dining companions were waiting. It wasn't long before the food came out in rapid succession.



The quickest to arrive -- and the restaurant's most popular dish -- was the House Special Thin Noodle ($3.50); a bowl of wheat-based noodles, its strands as fine as angel hair, suspended in a murky brown soup as thick as gravy.

Thickened with a healthy dose of cornstarch, this soup clung to the noodles -- almost to the point of making it slimy -- lending a sultry sheen to each slippery slurp. The powerful punch of pureed garlic, the sweet cinnamon whispers of star anise, and the boldness of bonito flakes inhabited every molecule of the soup, giving the noodles the reason to exist. The noodles, by contrast, were rough and sturdy; like denim to the soup's silk.

Added for texture were rubbery pieces of pork intestine, fibrous strips of bamboo shoots, and chopped cilantro. The intestines, which was also offered in a dish affectionately called "Chittering", succumbed easily to a few chews like tripe with a pork fat finish.



The appetizer of Fried Crispy Squid ($4.25) came next. Caked with a light, bubbly, and crumbly batter, dusted with white pepper, salt and other spices, these strips of cuttlefish were finger food at its best -- something I can see being served as snacks at the night markets of Taipei.

Unlike lesser incarnations of fried calamari, which can range from being overdone and rubbery to underdone and slimy, these hit that elusive sweet spot -- tender, greaseless, and meaty.



The Chinese Sausage Rice ($5.25) was substantial for the price. Shorn pieces of sweet lap cheung, soy-sauce boiled egg and tofu was served on a mound of steamed rice doused with the broth the tofu was cooked in.

Steamed baby bok choy and Chinese pickled greens offset the protein and rounded out the meal.



A Nice Time Deli favorite of mine is the uniquely Taiwanese delicacy usually called "oyster omelette". For the dish, oyster meat is cooked on an oiled pan with a thin layer of beaten egg and a glutinous rice flour batter. It's then served on top of sauteed greens and smothered with a ketchup-based sauce. It's a sticky, slimy, kooky appetizer one shan't find anywhere but a Taiwanese restaurant.

Ay-Chung offers the dish but calls it Oyster Pancake. But I opted to try the Shrimp Pancake ($4.50), which operated on the same principles.

Although all the components were present and accounted for, the shrimp was overcooked past the point of being edible; these crustaceans were so dry, in fact, they were almost dehydrated. However, I did find the wilted chrysanthemum leaves, which formed the base of the dish, to be peppery and perfect.



The most ambitious dish we ordered was the House Special Steak ($7.95). A thin slab of griddle-cooked beef was sluiced with a goopy tomato sauce, paired with spaghetti and a runny fried egg. It's served on a sizzling platter not unlike those used for restaurant fajitas. This one had us scratching our heads, and not just because they included a salad and corn chowder, both in soup bowls.

The use of a sizzling plate just seemed out of place in a joint like Ay-Chung where water is self-serve out of a communal jug. Regardless of the oddity and the misplaced showmanship, the steak was gristly and chewy. The sauce which blanketed every square inch of it tasted like watered down Ragu pasta sauce, thickened to the point of absurdity with cornstarch.

The folks at Nice Time Deli needn't worry about the last two dishes stealing away customers. But with 119 other items on their menu, Ay-Chung is still a force to be reckoned with.

As the Chairman of Iron Chef would say "arr'h kizinn" ...let the Taiwanese Restaurant Battle begin!

Ay-Chung Noodle
(949)651-1180
5406 Walnut Ave., #C
Irvine, CA 92604

28 Comments:

At 10:36 PM, Blogger Eddie Lin said...

Ay-Chung Noodle aka "The House of Cornstarch"

"Would you like food with your cornstarch, sir?"

Still the photos look really scrumptious. My tum-tum grumbles.

 
At 10:57 PM, Blogger 冬冬 said...

I got food poisoning from there(I'm guessing the oysters did it)! Had to go to the hospital and everything.. it was horrible. :(

I had the house special noodles too, but it was overcooked and tasted burnt.

Needless to say I won't be back for quite some time...

 
At 11:14 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Eddie,

Oh man, are you ever spot-on perfect with your description. I think one of us actually said "Would you like food with your constarch?!" I still liked the food (except for the last two dishes). A soft spot still exists for Nice Time Deli, but I'm glad Ay-Chung's there to keep 'em on their toes.

冬冬,

Whoa, looks like I dodged a bullet by ordering the Shrimp Pancake and not the Oyster. Sorry you had a bad experience. Yikes! No trip to a restaurant should be followed by one to the hospital. That sucks and blows.

 
At 7:46 AM, Blogger Juliet said...

Eh, I might give Ay-Chung Noodle a try next time we are in Irvine. But something tells me I'm still going to prefer Nice Time Deli. The atmosphere alone is a big factor.

I, too, love a good oyster omelette. But I think I'll avoid theirs. I'm not sure if I'd trust "fast food" oyster.

 
At 8:51 AM, Anonymous Kirk said...

Hi Elmo - Looks like all of these places are slowly making their way South.....I'm hoping to see them in my neck of the woods soon!

 
At 10:19 AM, Blogger Christine D. said...

Haha I like your imitation of the chairman.

Even though this post is about Ay-Chung Noodle, it makes me want to try Nice Time Deli even more!! AHH!! It's so close, yet i still haven't tried it.

 
At 4:19 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

juliet,

I'm certainly not going to push my luck with their oysters after 冬冬's experience! And neither should you! ;-) Yeah, Nice Time Deli's not going anywhere, and I'm glad.

Kirk,

Yep...if they vanquish Nice Time Deli, Ay-Chung will march on to San Clemente, then Oceanside, then Carlsbad, and then they're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeaaaaagggggh!!!

Christine,

Really? I thought it's a prequisite of every undergraduate at UCI to go Nice Time Deli! Like a rite of passage or a paddling by the frat brothers...okay...I kid. Well, maybe not.

 
At 10:59 PM, Anonymous Seth Chadwick said...

I don't know what to think here, Elmo. Taiwanese food is about as foreign to Phoenix as you can get. Some of the things looked appetizing, but your taste descriptions just didn't do it for me. Although, I thought the soup looked great.

Perhaps I should just stick with the soup?

Great review though.

 
At 11:07 PM, Blogger Kathy said...

Hey Ed!
Talk about excessive cornstarch-ing! Nonetheless, the noodles look pretty impressive (your description helped quite a bit :))

$3.50 a bowl...if we could only find an Italian meal at that price!

 
At 6:24 AM, Anonymous joy said...

By "chittering" I assume they're just missing an L and S and meant chitterlings...? I say chitlins, but it's the same thing: Southern dish of fried pig intestines, mmmmmmm. Gets me homesick for the South again, and I'm not even from there. (After the latest attempt, at Memphis, my craving for good hush puppies is *still* not satisfied.) But why use the South term?

 
At 3:13 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Seth,

Yeah, this place has got its misses. Someone on chowhound said that its popularity right now is due to looky-loo traffic. A crowd attracts more of a crowd. I think he may be right.

kathy,

They must have a lot invested in corn futures or something.

joy,

Yep, they definitely must have meant "chitterlings". They should've gone and spelled it "chitlins", which would have been a lot funnier to see in a Taiwanese restaurant.

 
At 12:13 AM, Blogger Passionate Eater said...

Is that your real name? Ed? (Sorry, just looking through the comments.) If you come up to SF anytime (like Dylan or Diet Chili Cheese Fries / Rick James), I'll make you real oyster pancakes! They are very easy to make. I should probably even write a post on them...

 
At 11:09 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

PE,

Actually that's pretty close to my real name. I've only stepped out of my nom de plume once, when OC Weekly republished that Sushi Shibucho post of mine.

And I'll take you up on your offer the next trip I take to SF. If you're ever in OC, since I don't know how to make the oyster omelette (at least until I read your post on how), we'll have to meet up at Nice Time Deli, where they make a good one.

 
At 10:22 PM, Blogger Christine D. said...

oo! Thanks for the add!

 
At 7:19 PM, Blogger Steph said...

The odd combinations of western foods reminds me of those Hong Kong-style cafes in Monterey Park, Alhambra, et al. They do some pretty crazy shit sometimes. And sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. I guess you could call it "unfortunate fusion."

 
At 5:05 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Christine,

Hey no prob!

Steph,

That was my impression exactly. A Taiwanese noodle shop trying to be a Hong Kong Style Cafe, which as you know is really just a Chinese restaurant trying to be Western.

 
At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Julian Hsu said...

Hey Elmo,

Tried Ay-Chung a couple nights ago. It was pretty crowded near 10pm on a Sunday night. :P My wife had the beef noodle soup, and I had the stewed pork with rice. We shared the fried squid.

The stewed pork was pretty good- reminded me of the version I used to drive out to Shau May in Monterey Park for. Mmm..

Julian

 
At 9:11 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Julian,

Glad you enjoyed it! I wanted to try the fried pork chop noodle on this visit, but they were completely out! But it's good that there's at least one more dish that they do well.

 
At 2:58 AM, Anonymous cathy said...

I dont think Nice Time Deli has anything to worry about. They offer "pi gu mien" which no other restaurant can compare to. It also helps that NTD, has many loyal, longtime customers. BTW~ the Ay Chung noodle restaurant that was in Rowland Heights did failed. perhaps there was too much competition there.

 
At 11:33 PM, Blogger dsuratman said...

I went there a week ago and I had some rice noodle with duck meat and my wife had Oyster Noodle I think (like everybody else said, with CORNSTARTCH). I think it was ok, my wife still likes Nice Time Deli better. I ordered the Pork Chop (only) also, I think it's good, they can cut down on the garlic a little bit on that one. The Pork Chop is different than NTD's (covered with flour), so I cannot really compare them.

For atmosphere, I have to go with Nice Time Deli. Ay-Chung's is too hectic and crowded.

Nice posting once again elmo, thx.

If you ever interested in American Chinese cuisine, try Wan-Fu in Rancho Santa Margarita. Under the previous management it was good example of a restaurant with good service. It's under new mgmt now, but it's still ok I think.

 
At 1:31 PM, Blogger jx said...

I had a bad experience the first time at the Milpitas store, but that was because we ordered the wrong items. Not everything is great, and I do agree with the cornstarch issue, however, I think they have the best Pork Chop "pai gu fan" and Fried Chicken "Gi Tuai fan" around. Their shredded chicken rice "Gi Zuo Fan" is a rip tho. Nice Time deli use to be may fav for those. I think the steak is an excellent value at $7.95, just be sure to order it 70% cooked, and get the black pepper sauce.

I think it's great to have a lil bit more variety in Irvine, my family and I will bounce back and forth between the 2 restaurants since each has their own specialty. I haven't really tried the other noodles from Ay-Chung, but my mom seems to love their "yang-chung mien".

 
At 10:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went there and it freaking sucked!!! Everything tasted horrible :( 8 thumbs down.

 
At 10:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went here and it sucked! 8 thumbs down!

 
At 5:31 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

HI everyone,

Like I said, not everything is great here. But I do like that garlicky, overstarched noodle soup that seems to be their calling card.

Thanks for leaving comments guys! I love hearing about what you guys think.

 
At 5:05 PM, Blogger momopi said...

The business at this place has fallen off over the past few months, much easier to get a seat now. I recommend their special pork chop soup noodle, the one where they chop up the fried pork chop and put it in the soup directly.

I'm sorry to say that you cannot expect the same level of quality or taste from this branch versus the one in Taipei. Same goes for Ding Tai Feng. I've eaten at Ay-Chung Noodle in Taipei where all the customers have to stand (no chairs or tables) and hold the noodle bowl by hand, and it was well worth it.

 
At 4:51 PM, Blogger Robbi said...

I have eaten there, and as a noodle maven, I can say I was not particularly impressed. I never went back. But perhaps I should give it another try?

 
At 8:20 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

momopi,

I figured the fad was short lived.

Robbi,

To be honest, I haven't been back since I wrote this review. I have, however, been back to Nice Time Deli many times.

 
At 11:10 PM, Blogger momopi said...

Restaurant is now gone. :(

There is no decent Taiwanese deli in Irvine left. I recall in the old days you could go to Ranch 99 on Culver and get cuttlefish soup, those days are long gone.

 

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