I love to find small ethnic restaurants with great food.
I recently heard about a place in Irvine's Orange Tree Square Shopping Center, which is a mecca for seekers of Asian cuisine. It is called 101 Noodle Express. The restaurant, part of a very small chain, came to Orange County more than a year ago.
It is rather small but quite pleasant, with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, red booths and a long banquette on one wall. It had a nice clean feel.
My dining companion and I found the wait staff to be pleasant and quite helpful in navigating the very large menu.
I will give you an idea of the menu via the many categories. There are 21 different steamed dumplings, mostly with pork, including shrimp and pork, as well as sole fish and one with spinach and shrimp. Then there are 21 kinds of pan-fried dumplings.
Noodle lovers will be happy with 21 selections of noodle dishes — with lamb, oxtail, beef, pork spare ribs, pigs feet, chicken, seafood and eggplant, to name a few. For a little extra money, beef broth, vegetables, cucumber or more noodles can be added.
Side dishes range from Dezhou chicken to northern sausage, shredded tofu, lamb sticks and lots more.
From the rolls and pancakes menu are beef, chicken and pork roll varieties, plus pan-fried cake, leek and egg pancakes and green onion pancakes.
Buns include steamed pork and steamed crabmeat.
If rice is what you'd like, there are eight selections, including yang chow, pineapple, shredded pork and bean vegetable. Stir-fried noodle dishes feature pork, beef or shrimp with vermicelli noodles.
We spent some time trying to choose from the long list and decided we would go for the beef roll first, since a very nice lady seated next to us recommended it, as did Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold.
This speciality of Shandong Chinese cooking was really good. The basis is fried Chinese pancakes. These are stuffed with onions, cilantro and lots of thinly sliced meat soaked in sweet bean and hoisin sauce and then formed into giant rolls that are cut into big pieces. They are addicting.
Next we enjoyed the stir fried noodles with shredded pork. Thin strips of pork were tossed with the fried noodles, carrots, sweet onions, green peppers and bean sprouts. It needed a bit of heat, so I added soy sauce and hot chili pepper sauce, and the dish was delicious.
The one thing we didn't like was the steamed leek and pork dumplings, which were very bland. The steamed crab meat buns were better. They were juicy.
Wanting to taste one of the soups, we ordered the pork spare ribs with noodles, which was a huge bowl of soup with a light broth filled with chunks of tender, meaty spare ribs on the bone. The meat was delicious and the portion large.
We enjoyed the meal, but a few things really needed something spicy to liven them up. Our waitress asked us if we liked our food spicy and we said yes, but she must have misunderstood. Still, I think we will be back, but we will be sure to get some hot sauce.
The place is inexpensive. Beware, credit cards are not accepted, and beer and wine are not served.
101 NOODLE EXPRESS
Location: 5408 Walnut Ave., Suite 4, Irvine
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Prices: $ 4.99 to $10.99
Information: 101NoodleExpress.com; (949) 654-8542