Big Plate Chicken with Noodles includes red peppers, potatoes and wood-ear mushrooms.

Northern Cafe opens at University Center

by TOM BERG

Prepare to upgrade your dumpling and noodle game. Legendary Northern Cafe is freshly open in University Town Center. Long-acclaimed throughout L.A. County, the popular eatery chose Irvine for its OC debut.

Northern Cafe’s stellar reputation will attract initial interest, but the kitchen’s proven performance is what turns first-timers into regulars. The epic menu is a deep and wide selection of northern Chinese classics. Hot and cold. Soups and snacks. Noodles of every size drenched in rich broths or pan-sizzled. And, of course, hand-crimped dumplings plump with fresh, intricate and complex fillings, including the much-loved juicy pork.

Owners Lei Li, Yong Chuan and Bin Qias bring northern Chinese classics to University Center.

So many appetizers

The glossy, new 75-seat venue makes it tempting to explore with abandon. Where to start? Consider the wildly popular items that are winners with fans. Notable appetizers include a cilantro-spiked beef roll, sliced for easy sharing. Pudgy potstickers, six to an order, hold together for dunking in a sauce you customize with vinegars, chili oil and soy sauce. Wedges of green onion packages are crispy and delicate. Spicy pork wontons are soulful bites worth a second round, but do save room for those luscious dumplings. In addition to Juicy Pork Dumplings, standouts include Lamb Dumplings, Vegetable Dumplings and Shrimp, Pork, Egg & Chive Dumplings, steamed or pan fried.

Hand-pulled noodles

Noodle enthusiasts will find their new heaven here. Thick, thin, round or flat, it’s your call. Hand-pulled noodles get a lot of love in the always popular Dan Dan Noodles, a swirl of fresh, bouncy noodles topped with an umami-rich ground pork sauce. Another bestseller, House Special Beef Noodle Soup, is a deeply savory winner well suited to the approaching cooler weather.

House specialties are a varied lot and suitable for sharing; many include rice. This is where you’ll find braised eggplant, mapo tofu, and cumin-rubbed lamb sizzling with curls of fresh onion. Unfussy and swirling with savory aromas, the surroundings buzz with upbeat staffers taking orders and hustling dishes to tables. There’s also a sunlit patio for slurping cold noodles on a warm afternoon.