Spicing up Chinese cuisine

Yunnan Garden explores the food of a neglected region

Max Jacobson

Chinese-Americans from the San Gabriel Valley continue to relocate to Vegas, and not so far behind, a number of restaurants that serve regional Chinese cuisine have followed.

The latest entry is Yunnan Garden, which has locations in both Monterey Park and Hacienda Heights, California, two Chinese-restaurant hotbeds. It’s our first restaurant serving the cuisine of Yunnan, a Texas-sized area bordering Burma, or Myanmar, if you will, in southwestern China.

Yunnan is an interesting place. It is home to dozens of ethnic minorities that only anthropology and linguistics professors can name, like the Bui, Yao and Karen. Yunnan cuisine is famous in China for using matsutake mushrooms, acacia blossoms and exotic botanicals, but for those delicacies, you’ll have to track down a restaurant in Hong Kong, Singapore or Yunnan’s regional capital, Kunming.

Here, you will have to be content with some of the spiciest Chinese dishes in Vegas, courtesy of mouth-numbing red chilies, generally dispersed in an emulsion that looks a lot like transmission fluid. We’re talking spicy pork intestine, boiled fish and beef with Szechuan special sauce, and spicy Guiyang noodle soup with chicken. If you’re looking for sweet and sour pork, brother, you’ve got the wrong number.

Yunnan Garden is a comfortable space, occupying what was formerly home to Mein Dynasty. Next to the front register, there is a cold-dish station containing 10 or so cold dishes, most fiery and unfamiliar. Point and shoot, choosing among an array of meat and vegetable dishes, such as marinated tofu, pig’s ear, tripe and shingles of spicy beef that will blast the roof of your mouth into the ionosphere.

It’s not all spicy. I dined there with a friend, after I gave him the takeout menu to peruse, and he agreed to come, as long as, in his words, I didn’t force him to eat stomach or ear. That day, we had only one spicy dish, marked by one, as opposed to two, chilies, on the menu. It was one of the house specialties, Yunnan-style dried beef, and he appeared to like it, as its hotness was approachable and not overpowering.

We also enjoyed Yunnan rice noodle soup, the name for this restaurant if you can read the Chinese characters on the sign. Picture a bowl of spaghetti-shaped rice noodles in a mild chicken broth, into which mushrooms, seaweed, chicken and various cuts of beef are added. For one, it’s a real meal. We shared it and left almost nothing.

That day, we ate meaty, tender pork spareribs on the bone, blanketed under steamed rice, a dish often served inside a bamboo steamer in southern California. He didn’t seem keen on the Chongqing spicy frog, a two-chili dish. That logo, it must be said, means the level of chili in the dish will be ridiculous, and the color as red as the Chinese flag.

I came back on another night, with friends from Texas, who relish the spicy stuff, and my wife, who puts chili powder on lime wedges before sucking out the juice. This time we didn’t skimp. Bean-curd fish with Szechuan special spicy sauce comes in a clay pot, delicate pieces of poached sole in an oily red stew that left my mouth burning for hours.

For balance, we ordered a duck dish recommended by the server, from the wall menu in Chinese characters. Translated by her as Szechuan smoked duck, the bird had the crispy texture of deep-fried chicken, the salty tang of a barbecued potato chip and flavors of the tea leaves, camphor and spices it had been smoked in. It’s a tasty dish, but the level of salt in it is intense. Let’s just say that a little of it goes a long way.

We also tried a terrific—and completely mild—vegetable dish, a simple sauté of green chives tossed with young bean sprouts, a still life in greens and yellows. And on the side, we had dry-beef fried rice, which again is not spicy but is wonderfully soothing.

The range on Yunnan Garden’s menu is astonishing. Fried lamb is laced with cumin, giving it an almost Mexican character. Homemade wontons are available in many ways, from kid food, in a simple chicken broth, to grown-up beef dishes like wontons tossed in chili sauce, a one-chili dish that sort of sneaks up on you.

If you come for lunch, the restaurant is generally populated with a Chinese clientele, many of whom will be eating hearty soups or Chinese clay-pot specialties. These are all one-pot meals, most of which are priced under $7.

If you want something mild, try lo mein with chicken broth, a simple chicken noodle soup that any American child can eat. For a spicy dish, the ticket is spicy Guiyang noodle soup with chicken. The top layer is red oil, and the soup is stocked with about a half-pound of chicken underneath it. If corn starch and sugar are essential Chinese ingredients for you, give this place a pass. Otherwise, I’ll see you there.

Yunnan Garden

3934 Schiff Drive. 869-8885.

Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Suggested dishes: Yunnan rice noodle soup, $7.25; boiled fish/beef with Szechuan special sauce, $9.25; steamed spareribs, $8.95; Yunnan-style dried beef, $10.25.

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