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What's Cookin' Behind the Curtain - It Takes a Village to Feed a Hungry Chinese Guy

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Every Friday, LAist is taking you on a trip down to Orange County to uncover the unique dining experiences that await adventurous eaters willing to explore beyond the county line.

Chinese restaurants can generally be categorized into three different buckets: upscale “fusion” dining (aka tamed-down dishes with an "exotic" twist so that non-Chinese will eat them, but served on a pretty square plate so PF Chang’s can get away with charging $20 a dish); hole-in-the-wall authentic dining (aka no English spoken here, and no complaining about our Soup Nazi-esque service and very unsanitary conditions because you’re getting fed for less than $5); and Americanized dining (aka we’ll sell you unlimited quantities of sweet and sour pork and orange chicken for a good price even though there’s no way in hell we’d ever be able to sell this in China).

As an American-born Chinese, I lurve my authentic homestyle food. Good food is so important to the Chinese culture as an integral part of a balanced and harmonious life (even when it involves extra “elbow grease” in the food, certain unspeakable parts of animals, or unspeakable animals altogether). However, I hate going to hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants where I get condescending looks for not being able to speak a lick of Mandarin or Cantonese (thank goodness for bomb-ass friends that I can drag along to be translators). And there’s plenty of times that I need to find a cleaner and safer option for some of my non-Chinese friends who are plenty game to try something new, but don’t want to feel like they’re putting their life at risk by going to a restaurant with a ‘C’ or worse rating from the Department of Public Health. Or other times that I want to take a date out to a halfway decent restaurant and prove that I’m not as cheap and poor as my appearance may otherwise suggest.

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Enter Tri-Village Chinese Cuisine in Irvine. With Irvine rapidly becoming Orange County’s answer to Monterey Park by virtue of its ever-expanding middle-class Chinese population, numerous restaurants and stores continue to cater to this demographic. Tri-Village has been open for about a year and a half and offers an authentic Chinese meal without having to sacrifice some of the familiar comforts of a Western-style restaurant.

Tri-Village's menu is generally focused on Northern Chinese cuisine, though other regional styles such as Hunan, Hakka, and even Taiwanese dishes are also interspersed throughout the menu. About the only thing that isn't on the menu are Cantonese dishes. Generally, I'm opposed to places that offer a wide range of cuisines because it usually means they're good at none of them. But you know what? Chef Roger Lee by and large pulls it off. Whether your fancy is Shanghai-style dumplings (xiao long bao), Sichuan-style spicy tofu and minced pork (ma po dou fu), Wuxi-style braised pork spare ribs (jiang pai gu), Beijing-style green onion pancakes (cong you bing), or Taiwanese-style steamed chicken, there is something on the menu for you that is good to excellent. Tri-Village also serves clay pot dishes, slow-cooked to let the juices absorb for maximum flavor. The food may not measure up to the best individual restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley for a given specialty, but in very few places will you find the breadth of selection and depth of quality in the dishes as at Tri-Village.

Tri-Village does have some trademark dishes. The beef noodle soup was allegedly Jackie Chan's favorite when Chef Lee was in Hong Kong. Filled with a healthy portion of wheat noodles, tender chunks of beef, and chinese cabbage, the soup has a rich beef broth that feels almost like gravy when it goes down the first time. Also worth a taste is the salt and peppered eggplant, which offers fried eggplant, heavily seasoned and served with minced pork. The eggplant seems to melt in your mouth by its soft texture and rich flavor, which are both balanced by the pork.

While most of Tri-Village's menu items are more traditional fare, there are also a number of gourmet options, as well as American favorites. The miso-flavored cod is a noteworthy dish, grilled as opposed to steamed, and with a surprisingly sharp soy flavor from the miso marinade. The five spices shrimp is a variant of other popular dishes, crispy but with more subtle flavors than the sweet and pungent shrimp or the walnut prawns. And if you're a little wary of the braised fish stomach or the sautéed eel, you can still get your fix of mu shu pork or kung pao chicken, or go light with some lettuce wraps.

Unlike many of its more poorly maintained counterparts, Tri-Village is extremely clean and accessible to English-only crowds. The décor is modern and the music is usually American (or Canadian, no joke, Bryan Adams' Greatest Hits album was being played last time I visited). With only about twelve tables in the restaurant and no reservations, you may have to wait, as it gets crowded during dinner hours. However, you'll know that you'll at least be able to communicate with the help and maybe even get menu recommendations. Sure beats the "point and pray" method of ordering.

I like Tri-Village because I can go be Chinese without having to be Chinese. I may not have the burning desire to live out my days in China like Jack Bauer's dad, but I certainly want to eat like they do back in the homeland every once in awhile. Thankfully Tri-Village gives me another choice besides 2-item combo at Panda Express to cure my jones.

Tri-Village Chinese Cuisine
14121 Jeffrey Rd.
Irvine, CA 92620