Drunk After Work: The Balcony Grill & Bar
The Place: The Balcony Grill & Bar, 2710 Alton Pkwy., Ste 215, Irvine, (949) 387-0888; thebalconygrill.com.
The Hours: Drink specials, all day Sunday through Thursday. Open till 2 a.m.
The Deal: The restaurant/lounge/bar touts its almost-everyday all-day happy hour. It's actually easier to say when they don't discount their booze. This would be Friday and Saturday, where only the Johnny Walker Black (single) and the Grey Goose (single) are sold for $7.50 each. The rest of the time, you can get a small hot sake for $1.95; a pint of Bud Lite for $2.95; $3.95 for import pints, large hot sake or well drinks with one mixer (excluding Red Bull); $4.95 each for sake bombs, a selection of nigoritinis, fruit-heavy house martinis, Long Island iced teas or mojitos.
The Scene: When you come during the discounted time for booze, you're actually not liable to see many people doing actual drinking. During normal business hours, Balcony is a Taiwanese restaurant above all else. Everything outside the appetizer list constitutes honest-to-goodness meals eaten by Asian co-eds from UC Irvine and a few families with kids. Most slurp noodles or indulge in what the place is probably most known for: individually served shabu shabu pots heated by a Sterno-fueled flame.
The Sauce: When people actually order alcohol, it's usually beer. But the nigoritinis are potent despite the fruity nature. The yogurt one feels like a gulp of Calpico that burns a hole in your throat. The lychee martini has a speared lychee in lieu of an olive and tastes as though a few of the fruit were sacrificed in the puree that forms its flavor base. Both are stronger than you'd expect for girly drinks. The Long Island iced tea is purported to be even punchier.
The Food: There's a list of "Drunk Munchies," which are really just the restaurant's appetizers and a few of its dim sum items relisted for this purpose. The fried chicken wings ($5.95) aren't much different than what's served at a lot of other restaurants, possibly sourced from the same food supplier: heavy on the batter, slightly spicy and unremarkable. The vegetable spring rolls ($3.50) prove to be better, dutiful gut fillers. If it were lighter on the batter, a nest of gobo shrimp tempura ($4.95) would be easier to eat, but the seared ahi tuna ($8.95) comes as a refreshing salad.
One of the best "drunk munchies" is the Magic Calamari ($6.95), a tangle of tentacles and squid morsels enveloped in a crispy, bubbled batter tossed in with onions, a flurry of spiced salt and a whiff of ginger. You almost want rice to make it a complete meal. Or better yet, have a complete meal with a generously portioned bowl of the beef noodle soup more commonly called niu rou mian ($8.95). Despite the off-the-shelf noodles, this is one of the better renditions of this dish in town, with softly melting, floating hunks of long-stewed beef, pickled vegetables and a sour spicy broth that's more intoxicating than any liquor.
The Verdict: Discounted booze all day, every day (except Fridays and Saturdays), plus food that you'd actually want to eat without needing to be drunk.
The Grade: B.