The menu at Meizhou Dongpo, a new Sichuan restaurant in Irvine, looks almost like a children’s book. A dozen oversized pages are filled with big, beautiful photos. Nearly every dish on the menu is illustrated.
I look around the room on my first visit and realize I’m the only white person. Everyone else is Asian; I assume most are of Chinese descent.
At a nearby table, four women giddily flip the pages back and forth, pointing to various pictures, oohing and ahhing as if looking at their old high-school yearbook. They speak only in Chinese until the waitress arrives.
Excitement among the customers here is palpable, if not exactly translatable to someone whose only languages are English and Spanish. Unlike in many of Irvine’s best Chinese restaurants, though, the staff speaks fluent English.
And for the most part, the service is professional. Waiters are neatly groomed and outfitted with starched blue shirts and crisp white aprons. Plates are cleared and replaced constantly. Tea is kept warm. A manager works the room, shaking hands. Credit cards are processed at the table with handheld devices.
The restaurant is elegantly decorated. Silk pillows soften the banquettes, Chinese lanterns dangle from the ceiling, and expensive-looking urns line the shelves. The serving dishes are pretty, too, a mix of rustic clay pottery and ornately painted porcelain, nearly every piece of which is already chipped or cracked — and they’ve only been open for a couple of months.
“I’ll have the house special spicy beef,” I say to the waitress, pointing to one of the pictures.
“Oh, hmm” she says, looking me over. “That’s going to be very oily and spicy. Are you sure that’s what you want?”
I look at the picture again. It looks so good that I’m almost drooling. “Yes,” I say.
A few minutes later, before my food arrives, I watch the same waitress deliver a dish of scallops to the women at the next table. “If this is too spicy,” she tells them in English, “I can take it back to the kitchen and have more sugar added.”
They devour it just the way it is.
When my beef arrives, she offers no additional comment. I’ve already been warned. The bowl is filled with what looks like soup, except the top is slicked with bright red oil. I can see my reflection on the surface, and there’s a look of fear on my face as I peer into the bowl. I poke the mirror with my spoon. I stir up a wad of red chili paste and a few wrinkly pieces of boiled beef. I pluck the beef with my chopsticks and bring it to my mouth, bracing for pain. I close my eyes, chew and let the meat slither down my throat.
My fear quickly fades. It’s not nearly as spicy as it looks and even more delicious than I imagined. It packs a punch, for sure, but more from Sichuan peppercorn than from chilies. It is mildly electric, like touching your tongue to an old 9-volt battery.
It’s not until my next visit that I discover what weapons-grade plutonium tastes like. I’ve ordered the Royal Hot Pot — a boiling cauldron of shrimp, beef, mushrooms, quail eggs, lotus root and, I believe, Spam — and when I take my first sip, I choke. Literally. I try to swallow, but my throat rejects whatever it is my brain is telling it to ingest. Tears flood my eyes and the room goes blurry. I feel as if I’m going to loose control of my body, like I’m going to have a seizure. In my head, I’m preparing myself for the embarrassment of being wheeled out of the restaurant on a stretcher.
Somehow that doesn’t happen. It takes only a few seconds to regain consciousness and try again, a smaller spoonful this time. The stew is so potent, I find it hard to eat and breathe in proper sequence. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Sichuan cuisine over the years, and up to this point I thought I knew the boundaries of Sichuan spice. Clearly I did not.
My skin is numb. Not just my lips and tongue but my lungs and toes, too. I have never been so uncomfortable as right now because I badly want to eat this stuff. It smells so nice. And it tastes so good for that millisecond before the electric surge. But I can’t handle it. I push the hot pot aside and stuff my face with rice, hoping to quell the ringing in my ears. A dish of stewed, ultra-fatty pork belly helps, too.
Compared with the hot pot, everything else on the menu seems tame. To be fair, not everything here is meant to scar your esophagus. Numerous dumplings will suit even the most timid palates. And the Peking duck — an export of Beijing, not Sichuan — is simultaneously bland and sweet. Incidentally I think the better duck here is the far less expensive “crispy duck,” which is deep-fried, intentionally overcooked, ugly to look at and inexplicably wonderful.
The dan dan noodles are moderately spiced, perfectly springy between the teeth, tossed with diced pork and some leaves I don’t have the vocabulary to name. The Sichuan fried chicken is good and perfectly familiar. The eggplant is gooey and sticky and sinfully sweet. That’s a good thing, in context.
The only thing I haven’t liked were the Brussels sprouts, which were almost raw and difficult to chew.
On my fifth visit, a waitress recognizes me from earlier encounters. She walks up to the table and begins speaking in Chinese, a million words a minute, smiling as she carries on. I try to interrupt but she continues. She finally ends with what sounds like a question, to which I can only answer with a helpless shrug.
She laughs, realizing I didn’t understand a word. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Welcome back.”
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Where: 15363 Culver Drive, Irvine
Hours: Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5 p.m.-
10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Don’t miss: House special spicy boiled beef, spicy fried chicken, country style pork, dan dan noodles, crispy duck
What to skip: Brussels sprouts
Best place to sit: The bigger the table, the better
About the noise: Loud but not uncivil
County health inspection: Six major violations in March, but allowed to continue operating without closure.
Cost: $7 to more than $75, with the highest prices assigned to dishes meant for several diners to share.
What the stars mean: 0 = poor, unacceptable 1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities 2 = good, solid, above average 3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm 4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambiance and service
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.