Once-homogenous Irvine may have a Chinatown in the making. The inside of 99 Ranch Market in Culver Plaza amounts to a Chinese mini-mall, complete with a travel agency, beauty salon and book, herb and video shops. Next door is Sam Woo Bar-B-Q.
Get a healthful start on the day at Dynasty Health Products, where you’ll find dried sea horses intended to “tonify” the kidney, a Zizyphus formula for sleep, sundry bark-like substances that darken your hair and a number of items that “dispel damp.” Behind the counter are drawers full of tonic herbs reported to clear your meridians.
For a better understanding of what ails you, pick up a copy of the English Chinese Medical Dictionary ($70) at Irvine Book Store. There are also two aisles of Chinese and English-language laserdiscs for sale and for rent--among them “Top Hits Chinese Songs,” which now number at least 62 volumes, and “Top Hits Chinese Old Songs,” at least 14 volumes.
There’s a takeout section at Sam Woo Bar-B-Q and outdoor tables, or you can wait for a table inside. Another option is the elegant Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant next door. The name Sam Woo is well known in the San Gabriel Valley, and there are now 17 Sam Woo restaurants in Southern California. The more casual side of the local establishment serves more than 200 dishes (most $3-$9); this is the place to give less familiar items such as pig intestines a whirl.
Choose from a multitude of options tucked into this strip mall:
* Go for a facial or haircut at Formosa Salon, or check out Today’s Video, where half of the store is devoted to Mandarin-language videos, the other half to Cantonese--many with English subtitles. (The titles of some Chinese movies bear remarkable similarities to English-language hits: “Oh! Pretty Woman,” for instance, and “Mainland Dundee.”)
* At 99 Ranch Market, you’ve got the best of both worlds. Alongside cans of Dole crushed pineapple is young green jack fruit from Thailand. Dried white fungus shares an aisle with Jolly Time Popcorn.
In the produce department are exotic fruits such as the spiny, egg-shaped rambutan. In frozen foods are cigar minnows and giant frog legs. The meat department offers goat cuts ($2.99 a pound), pork ears and duck tongues.
In the fish department, there’s a free frying service from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. The extensive live selection includes catfish and littleneck clams ($2.99 a pound) and Dungeness crabs ($4.99 a pound) that do bite; one that could star in a sci-fi thriller came out to about $13.
As supermarkets go, this is vegetarian heaven: Products include mock cuttlefish and gluten braise. An aisle stocked mostly with Asian pastas offers Chinese vermicelli and bean strips. Rice in 50-pound sacks awaits at the front of the store.
Never again settle for bland dishes and plastic ware; check out colorful ceramic serving bowls in “China ware” for around $2 each. Exiting the checkout stands, at a counter resembling a duty-free shop, “lucky” foot-long segments of dry bamboo sell for $1.99.
* Suddenly feeling some wanderlust? Stop in at Orange County Travel and pick up a brochure about, say, Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s largest city. A sign advertises shuttle van rides to LAX for $18 per person with one-day notice; it’s a 24-hour service with departures from Ranch 99.
If you need to finance the trip, there are three banks just out the door: Far East National, Cathay and China Trust.
A Chinese Flavor
Irvine’s Culver Plaza has a distinctly Asian flavor. The 99 Ranch Market, a sort of Chinese mini-mall, includes several establishments. Sam Woo Bar-B-Q is next door and three banks with Asian names complement the market:
1. 99 Ranch Market: Suite 800, (714) 651-8899 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Inside 99 Ranch Market
* Dynasty Health Products
Suite 800, (714) 786-0887
10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily
* Irvine Book Store
Suite 800, (714) 551-4439
9:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily
* Formosa Salon
Suite 800, (714) 733-9988
9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily
* Today’s Video
Suite 800, (714) 552-3679
10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily
* Orange County Travel
Suite 800, (714) 559-4533
9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
2. Sam Woo Bar-B-Q Suite 720, (714) 262-0888 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Parking: There is ample parking in the Culver Plaza lot.
Buses: OCTA Bus No. 65 runs north from Irvine Center Drive along Culver Drive and east from Culver Drive along Irvine Center Drive, with a stop at the corner.
99 Ranch Market
Sam Woo Bar-B-Q
Far East National Bank
China Trust Bank