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REVIEW: Phoenix, Irvine

Das Ubergeek | May 4, 200809:45 PM

We needed supplies. I needed shrimp, and also curry paste and papayas, so it seemed like a trip to 99 Ranch was in order. We also wanted lunch, but we refuse to eat at Ten Ten Seafood near the Anaheim 99 Ranch any more, so we packed up and headed off down the 5 to Culver to eat at Phoenix.

Phoenix, a small local chain, have really two incarnations: the Phoenix Food Boutique, which is a very credible imitation of a Hong Kong "cha chaan teng" (teahouse, which serves small savoury and sweet treats, Hong Kong-style teas, coffees, and junjong, and a few hot dishes), and the Phoenix Restaurant, which, as its name suggests, is a, well, you know, restaurant.

(Note from the editor: the sub-editor responsible for the preceding attack and shakedown on innocent English grammar has been sacked. We apologise for the pornographic number of commas.)

The restaurant, a small space, is in the Heritage Plaza, near the Ralphs at Culver and Walnut.

The menu reads like there are two chefs -- an assortment of Cantonese dishes, and an assortment of Sichuan dishes. (For those of you who are not Chinese food snobs, this means a lot of fruit-based sauces and random animal parts on the one hand, and a lot of spicy and big, bold flavours on the other).

We ordered lunch specials (available even at the weekend, mostly $6.25 and includes rice, tea and egg-flower soup) -- one with lemon chicken (see, sweet fruity sauce = Cantonese) and one with "Szechwan eggplant" (this, of course, was 魚香茄子, or fish-fragrance eggplant, which has absolutely no fish in it -- the flavours in the dish, ginger, garlic and chilies, are usually served with fish).

The egg-flower soup was bog-standard. It tasted like every other egg-flower soup in existence, which is to say, like a hot steaming bowl of nothing. My nearly-1-year-old daughter loved it.

The chicken was excellent -- dipped in some kind of flour that made it very crunchy, which crunchiness stood the test of time while languishing in a very -- VERY -- sticky sweet lemon sauce. The stir-fried lettuce with it (yes, that's right, you read it here first) was delicious with the sauce, but I would have liked the chicken plain. It was extremely well-cooked (which is not to say well-done -- it was actually very juicy and tender).

The winner, however, was the eggplant. A very large portion -- probably two or three whole Chinese eggplants, which are slender but long -- swimming in a very pungent, slightly sweet sauce. I loved it, my wife loved it... but when we fed some of it to the baby, she wanted it so badly that the remainder -- fully a third of what was on the plate -- went to her. She fussed after it was gone, too, so at 99 Ranch I made sure to buy Zhejiang vinegar, shaoxing wine, doubanjian and eggplants so that I can make it for her here at home.

The food was really fresh and well-executed. The only problem is the service. I'm used to Chinese service, but it weirds me out when young (20-something), American-fashion-dressed waiters don't speak English very well in Chinese restaurants. It's not really that big an issue -- either their English will be OK, or we'll get along on my Chinese, but it's just odd. The service was completely peremptory, which is usual, but they acted put out when asked for something, which is NOT usual in "Chinese service". You may get a look now and then, but never the big sigh.

Prices, because we were having lunch specials, were very cheap -- lunch for us came to $16, including a milk tea for my wife.

It's worth mentioning that Phoenix, like almost no other Chinese restaurant, has a large dessert menu, mostly puddings and flans and tapioca. The selection is not as large as the dessert selection at the Phoenix Food Boutique stores, but it does exist and the prices are not very expensive. They do not, sadly, have the mixed-fruit shaved ice dessert that is so good I drive to Rowland Heights to get it. We punted on the dessert anyway, because the 99 Ranch there (as well as the one in Anaheim) has Desir bakery, which has the most confoundingly delicious Macau-style egg tarts in Orange County.

I think it's a "recommend". If you can deal with the lower end of "Chinese service", you'll be rewarded with very well-executed (if slightly sweet -- perhaps next time I will ask them to go easy on the sugar) southern Chinese cuisine.

Phoenix Restaurant
14310 Culver Dr, Irvine, CA

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