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 fried calamari, which can range from being overdone and rubbery or 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 top of a mound of steamed rice doused with some of the broth the tofu was cooked in.
Steamed baby bok choy and Chinese pickled greens offset the protein and rounded out the meal.
A long-time 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; the crustaceans were so dry, in fact, that 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 included was 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!
5406 Walnut Ave., #C
Irvine, CA 92604