Yi Yuan Szechuan, Millbrae [split from Best Sichuan Food in SF thread]
Following up on mr_darcy's discovery that the chef was from Hebei, I inquired about Hebei specialties. The server talked to the chef and they said they could bring three dishes, on menu or not, that were representative of the food in Hebei. Here's what I got:
Cumin lamb: not particularly spicy, either in heat or fragrant cumin, this wasn't a great version. Oily and no wok-char to the meat. I was glad that the only vegetable in it was onion. There was a lot of onion.
Mu shu pork: pork strips, fluffy scrambled eggs, thin chives of some sort, wood ear mushroom strips, bean sprouts, and lots of glass noodles. No lily flower buds. Six thin, but not house made, pancakes were folded in quarters and lined the edge of the serving dish. This was a very good mu shu dish, and one that relied on the taste of lightly cooked vegetables instead of a dousing of hoisin sauce. The server said the chef made this special for me--- their standard menu version of this dish is supposedly mostly cabbage and doesn't contain the glass noodles.
Stir-fried chicken with cucumber and carrots: not on the menu, this contains peeled cucumber chunks that were stir fried with chicken meat. I wouldn't go out of my way to get this again, but cucumber is great in stir fries.
I also got an order of the large sesame bread (zhi ma da bing). The outside was lightly browned. The inside was layered and fluffy and had lots of green onion slices. This was a very good version and made to order.
Since the chef was willing to make two off-menu items, are there any Hebei dishes worth inquiring about, perhaps as a special pre-order? The two off-menu stir-fries were fine, but I'd imagine one could get something more specialized if they knew dish names.
mr_darcy, any other specific recommendations since your last post?
Cool. The zha jiang mein sound very promising on my next visit.
Lanzhou style hand pulled noodles with beef in soup : round hand pulled noodles with decent tugging potential-- they even stayed good as leftovers. Pinkish beef was a little tough and had lots of gristle. Tongue tingling amount of MSG in the soup, but there's still lots of flavor and body underneath.
Mapo Doufu with pork
Cucumbers (I forget the name of the dish): large (english?) cucumbers were peeled, seeded, and tossed with some uncut fresh red chilies, thick slices of onions, and minced garlic. For such a common and simple dish, this was a really weak rendition--- not enough, if any, salt and no bruising of the cucumbers to help draw out their moisture and increase their surface area. I think this cost about $6, and the portion size was bigger than anywhere else I've had a similar cucumber appetizer.
I'll note that the sesame pancake I got here a few weeks ago was way better than one I ate at China Village last week (that the inside of that was essentially a solid one inch layer of bread with a short additional internal layer at the top for green onions).
Just tried this place for lunch today - I can't speak for anything else, but the northern dishes are superb. Amongst the best in the Bay Area. Frankly, it makes me doubt that it's a Szechuan restaurant.
In any event, we had dou jiang, the pork and cabbage dumplings, xiar bing (with beef, cucumber, and cilantro), and zha jiang mian. All were excellent. The xiar bing was especially impressive as it was one of the least oily versions I've every had - very light and fresh tasting, while still maintaining authenticity. The zha jiang mian does not typically come with hand-made noodles (only the la-mian - aka ramen), but she substituted it for us. The sauce was on the less salty side with a good amount of ground pork. Generous serving of julienned cucumber and blanched mung bean sprouts - one notable addition was a small amount of ginger.
I should note that I'm pretty sure the dou jiang and xiar bing were not on the menu. The waitress (owner?) let us know the xiar bing was available while we were ordering, and we only found out they had dou jiang when she offered it to another table of northerners (upon which we requested a glass).
I can't overstate how excited I am to have found this restaurant - quality ingredients, nuanced execution (at least of the northern dishes), clean restaurant, friendly service (maybe not perfect, but at least friendly) - not much more you can ask for. I'll have to return to try the non-northern dishes and see how that goes.
re: Melanie Wong
Just went back - the menu says the chef is from Hebei, which is in the north. So it all makes sense!
If you order the wonton soup, it's northern style wontons - meat, not shrimp (and a different wrapper).
I've been back several times and enjoyed my meal each time. The one miss I had was the beef and green onion dumplings... the meat was extremely tough and hard. Not sure what happened there.
hand pulled noodles and szechuan food? this is officially the fastest i've gone from reading about something on ch to trying it. went for lunch with my husband today. very quickly: the space is clean, bright, and very new. the service is a little rough, but well-intentioned. it's not clearly marked on the menu which noodles are hand-pulled, and even when i asked the waitress about hand-pulled and she pointed to the "ramen" section of the menu, which contained 4 options, we still somehow ended up with one bowl that did not have hand-pulled noodles and one with. i got chao ma mian (non hand-pulled noodles). it was a clean rendition. not as smoky and deeply flavored as i tend to prefer, but certainly very pleasant and tasty. my husband got beef noodles, which we asked to be made spicy, but which came out plain. his noodles were hand-pulled. they were, if anything, a little too q. i like a nice chew, but these were quite hard. the soup did not look like any chinese beef noodle soup that i know of, it looked more like pho. we probably shouldn't have been ordering from the noodle section of a szechuan restaurant anyway.
more exciting was the szechuan dish we ordered. we got pickled beans with ground pork (i think it was called sour beans with minced meat on the menu). this was a very well-balanced dish: spicy, ma la, sour, and savory. it wasn't oily at all and the chilis and peppercorns were quite fresh and intense. will definitely be back to sample more of the szechuan menu. it's impossible to say from such a limited number of items, but this is certainly in the running to be my favorite szechuan place in the bay area.
The facebook site suggests this place is interesting. We're planning to give it a try on Friday. I will report afterwards.
The pickled beans and ground pork dish sounds like a special, now on the menu, at Little SIchuan in San Mateo, and it is excellent there. It is listed on the "Authetic [sic] Dishes" menu as
绍子江豆(辣) Chinese Salty String Beans Spicy!
Is that the dish you are thinking of, greyelf?
re: Thomas Nash
Not sure if it's the same one. So many spicy green bean preps out there! The one I'm thinking of looks like the attached, and is (usually) called something like "stir fried minced pork with sour bean" -- the sour aspect is critical in this dish, Thomas, and the beans seem always to be cut into very small dice. It could very well be a Sichuan dish, though I've never had it in a Sichuan restaurant. There is a recipe for it in one of Dunlop's cookbooks so it's likely.
Your picture looks like the Little Sichuan dish. The beans are brined in Fuchsia's recipe and are salty and sour, which is what I remember from LS. My wife confirms that it has ground pork. They emphasize "salty" in their English description and use different characters from Fuchsia (rou mo jiang dou), but I am pretty sure it is the same dish as hers and your picture.
Maybe a Chinese speaker can help break down the characters, which I have been trying to decipher. Last one is obviously "bean". Second is often "small". Google doesn't translate the first 3 characters, suggesting it is somebody's or some place's name, "Shao Zijiang" or "Shaozi Jiang". The Pleco app gives shào zi jiang dòu, jiang is often "river"... Some Beidu sites give 绍子江豆 sour long beans with ground pork.
The first two characters of Fuchsia's rou mo jiang dou is just minced pork. So, I am guessing jiang dou 江豆 is river beans, which may have been some possibly sour wild vegetable or they may have been traditionally pickled, and the characters are now understood as sour beans.
This is yet another example why trying to figure out Chinese character menus is so challenging for those not brought up in the culture.
Anyway, SZJ beans are delicious.
Edited note: There is another Sichuan dish, 绍子魚 shao zi you, a fish with a spicy meat sauce according to McCawley's Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters. The character zhao, he says, means "to bring together" and zi is a diminutive, e.g. small pieces, as I suggested above. From images you get when you Google search these characters, it appears to be minced pork spicy sauce over whole or slices of fish.
re: Thomas Nash
Seven of us, including 3 distinguished veteran chow hounders, ordered widely from Yi Yuan Szechuan’s extensive menu. Here is a list (in the menus order as I can’t remember the presentation order) of the dishes intermingled with my personal impressions. (Numbers are menu numbers. Other restaurants that may be compared in comments are Little Sichuan (LS) of San Mateo, Spices II (SII), Beijing (B), China Village (CV), Lucky Noodle King - a discovery by Jonathan Gold in San Gabriel (LNK), Hunan of Fresno (H), Shanghai House (SH).
B01 Wonton with Spicy Peanut Sauce. Nice, a bit less depth than SH.
B07 Tan Tan Noodles. A creamy version with a good bit of sesame paste. There is large variation in this dish. I liked this version.
N15 Tea Smoked Duck (half). Excellent and freshly done, one of the best versions I have seen in a while.
S06 Hot and Sour Shredded Potatoes. Neither hot nor sour nor any hint of a decent sesame oil or other flavoring. Quite forgettable.
J06 Couple’s Delight (夫妻肺片 Man and Wife Sliced Lung) really tripe, I think, and pork. This was a reasonably complex sauce and an interesting dish. Definitely a good choice here. I have had this before but can’t remember well enough to compare, so I will leave that to others.
J07 Saliva Chicken (a bit too literal a translation of 口水鸡, really Mouth Watering Chicken). Good chicken, decent flavoring, but presentation and sauce not up to LS or the “bon bon chi” at SII.
J13 Sliced Pork with Spicy Garlic Sauce. Presented as a messy pile of sliced pork with definite garlic in the uninteresting sauce, but really was not a winner for me.
K01 House Special Boiled Fish (水煮魚 literally Water Boiling Fish) (another menu item L07 House Special Boiling Fish is not marked spicy and is probably not the same traditional Sichuan red oily stock that cooks the fish filets). OK, but nowhere near the complexity this dish should have as at LS or SII or B or LNK.
K04 Chonqing Spicy Chili Chicken. This is the flavorfully fried chicken pieces usually on the bone (but not here) smothered in red dried chiles garlic and ma la. Was quite subtly good. But somehow I seemed to feel it was just pieces of fried chicken with some flavor, but not the intense flavor of this dish at SII or LS or LNK
K09 Yunnan Traditional Rice Noodle Soup (identified by knowledgeable members of the group as Cross Bridge Rice Noodles, which is exactly what 雲南過橋米線 says). Superb broth.
L01 Minced Meat Sour Beans (exactly 肉沬酸豆角) Different characters from 绍子江豆 shào zi jiang dòu at LS and other Sichuan places and discussed much too extensively in an earlier post given how uninteresting this dish was here. Very bland unflavored minced pork on the sour beans. Much better at LS.
L08 Laoganma Twiced Cooked Pork, that’s what we ordered rather than M05 Twice Cooked Pork because the waitress said L08 had more flavor with tofu slices. Our order was (for me) excellently flavorful, but had no tofu. So it is not clear which dish we got. Lao Gan Ma (老干妈) refers to a brand of chili sauce (which I found in my fridge and which is great and which has a picture of a grand ma on the label). I believe the waitress comment about tofu was in error and this is just a different flavoring for the twice cooked pork from M05. Very good, even if out of a jar…
M08 Ma-Po Tofu Pork. Arrived without pork, which was then corrected. Better than you would get in 98% of “Sichuan” restaurants in the US, better than we found in Taipei, but not really great. SII and LNK are much more authentic and bring back memories of the original in Chengdu.
All in all, for me, this is a respectable addition to the area’s Sichuan restaurants, but it did not fulfill my dream that it would finally bring us a place at the level of LNK in the San Gabriel Valley. The suspicion was raised at the table that since the Yunnan dish was so outstanding, perhaps this chef (who apparently came from Z&Y) is really from Yunnan, not Sichuan. I just did not sense a true Sichuan hand in the kitchen.
Service was erratic. One or two dishes were not as advertised and required correction or questioning. Pacing was outstanding as groups of 2 or 3 dishes came at a time, with a reasonable gap between them. Not everything was thrown on the lazy susan at once -- as is the habit at virtually every other Chinese restaurant I know.
Chili sauce on the table was excellent and seemed home made. Cost for this meal was $28/person including tip and half the party having some beer.
Enjoyed the company and the conversation. I am sure the distinguished Chowhounders who were present will supply photos and more sophisticated evaluations than mine.
re: Thomas Nash
Thanks so much for allowing us to crash your dinner. I have to agree with you on all points. The dishes just didn't sing. They all seemed to be missing something: a little heat, a little acid, a little salt, etc. Especially disappointing was the sliced pork with spicy garlic sauce, a dish I love that here sunk to the "not worth the calories" level. I actually detected a faint hint of sourness in the shredded potatoes, but it could have been stronger. I thought the twice-cooked pork was the strongest dish overall and I personally liked the creaminess of the Tan Tan noodles. The Couple's delight and the "saliva" chicken were both respectable but not remarkable.
re: Thomas Nash
Huh, that's really too bad that the minced meat sour bean dish was no good. The day we went, it was pretty much as good as I've ever had it, including in China. But I really only had the chance to sample the one dish (other than noodles) as I mentioned. Still going to give it another try.
re: Thomas Nash
A fun evening, Tom, thank you for including me. Here are the photos and a few observations.
B01 Wonton with Spicy Peanut Sauce – Meat filling was overly firm and too much like a meatball.
B07 Tan Tan Noodles – A little creamier with sesame paste than I prefer, but not a peanut butter sauce. Could use more preserved vegetables and Sichuan peppercorn.
N15 Tea Smoked Duck (half) – Good job, not dried out or oversmoked.
S06 Hot and Sour Shredded Potatoes – Good job with texture, but missed the mark on flavor subtleties.
J06 Couple’s Delight – Beef shank and tripe, should be more complex in spicing and hotter. Good texture on the meats.
J07 Saliva Chicken – Very good quality chicken poached to a tee, but hacked poorly with too many bone shards. Saucing too similar to the other red oil dishes.
J13 Sliced Pork with Spicy Garlic Sauce – A mess and a miss.
K01 House Special Boiled Fish – Lacking depth and intensity. Other restaurants will sprinkle ground Sichuan peppercorns and other dry spices over the surface to finish the dish, not here.
K04 Chongqing Spicy Chili Chicken – Boneless pieces of chicken picked up little influence from the surrounding chiles and other seasonings.
K09 Yunnan Traditional Rice Noodle Soup – Components were brought to the table on two small trays and added to the bowl of noodles in chicken broth. I’d order this again.
L01 Minced Meat Sour Beans – Not a dish I’ve had very many times, but other versions brown the meat for more flavor and texture. The ground pork here was pale and bland.
L08 Laoganma Twiced Cooked Pork – Pretty good, plenty of leeks, belly cut pork was rather coarse in texture but good flavor.
M08 Ma-Po Tofu Pork - The photos show the dish as originally brought to the table, and then after I showed the waitress on the menu that it was supposed to have pork in it and the kitchen made the adjustment by tossing some on top.
My sense of the cooking is that these were by rote assembly jobs putting together components and adding pre-made sauces. The restaurant was full on Friday, and perhaps the head chef did not prepare every dish (or any of them).
All photos (click “slideshow”)
re: Melanie Wong
Odd. The pickled bean dish looks significantly different from when we ordered it. Much wetter for starters. The place was practically empty when we were there at lunch. I'm disappointed that further investigation has revealed this place to be lackluster. Still dreaming of finding a fantastic Szechuan restaurant in or near the city.
re: Melanie Wong
yes, the meat had more color and was cooked crispier. my husband even remarked on the tastiness of the meat as we were eating it. the version pictured looks much sloppier and i agree, unappetizing. if we go back, i'll have to snap a pic of my own (assuming we get the good version again).
re: Melanie Wong
Ah, seeing your great pictures reminded me that Couple's Delight, of course,was beef slices and tripe (not pork as I said).
It is puzzling that a chef and his kitchen would not be at the top of their game on a Friday night. I think your comment about "rote assembly jobs" was pretty accurate. Witness the mound of bland ground pork piled on top of the sour beans -- according to Fuchsia Dunlop, they are supposed to be marinated and cooked first almost crispy and then cooked together with the beans. I hope our experience wasn't because of profiling...
In a top western restaurant, the chef is the gate keeper, checking each dish before it leaves the kitchen. I would think some equivalent quality control is involved in good Chinese places when the lead chef can't personally prepare every dish.
I forgot to mention that as we walked out I saw what looked like a very nice preparation of L17 Mao Family Braised Pork.
re: Thomas Nash
You guys were there maybe and hour or less after we left. Around that time the restaurant was absolutely packed and service was slowing down...noted a couple to our right were fuming mad about getting only one dish, as we were wrapping up our meal.
It is worth noting that the Chinese name Yi Yuan, where Yi = craftsmanship (no doubt relating to culinary) and Yuan = villa. This somewhat matches the motif of the interior's decoration with the fake tree in the middle, as if you are in the courtyard of a Qing Dynasty (or earlier) era palace or official building, a very subtle and interesting touch. The name is also somewhat suggesting (and explaining) the versatility of the menu (beyond Sichuan). The fact that the menu's Chinese characters are in traditional form (vs shorthand) in some ways reflects the catering to the primarily Cantonese demographic in the area.
Not common to see a wide variety of regional Chinese under one roof, but Yi Yuan is pulling it off.
- Dong Jing Rou Bing, this is probably the equivalent of Jing Dong Rou Bing, the multi layered pork pancake that can be ordered at Beijing Restaurant, Everyday Beijing, and possibly that place in Milpitas
- Xi'an style Rou Jia Mou (aka the marinated spiced pork mix sandwiched in a bun resembling the texture of English muffin)
- Xien bing (pork and leek). I believe there were two versions of this. Commonly referred to as "hockey puck" pastries, baked. Islamic Chinese restaurants usually use beef, and has a gamier taste to it.
- four kinds of boiled dumplings (chive + shrimp, pork and cabbage, pork and chive, beef and scallion)
- Lanzhou style hand pulled noodles in soup. Listed as "ramen" which is the worst mistake possible. Beef, seafood (with choice of clear broth, mala, or stewed), and Beijing style zha jiang mian.
- unavoidable Shanghainese items like xiao long bao, shen jian bao.
- NE specialties like pickled sour cabbage and pork belly casserole/clay pot
Due to the lack of spice tolerance at our table, we tried the lanzhou beef noodles which was great for a rendition with minimal MSG aftereffects. The noodle was good with more solid texture and bite than the lighter version at say San Dong House in SF. One could see the noodle chef making it from scratch and stretching pulling it. Also had the Yunan Crossing Bridge Noodles which was even better than HD a few doors down...huge portion though, no wonder it ran almost $14.
re: K K
I love Rou Jia Mou (did not know the name). I saw some on a menu in Akihabara yesterday (there's a Xi'an place called Xi'an at the top of Yodobashi Camera), but I was full, having eaten at a classic coin-op curry rice place. I went to the well known place in Xi'an nearly a decade ago and I still lust after them.
re: K K
Sorry we missed you, KK -- you were even mentioned at our table as our premier guide to Taipei restaurants. We were there from 7 - 9 or so.
We tried to order one or more from the "Pie and Pancake" section but were told they were not making them "today". Probably got too crowded. Other than that attempt and the fine Crossing Bridge Noodles, we focussed on ordering Sichuan dishes since that is in their name. From our experience and your comments maybe one should focus on the Yi Yuan rather than the "Szechuan".
BTW, is Rou JIa Mou what I think Beijing Restaurant calls a Beijing Hamburger, or something like that?
re: Thomas Nash
re: Thomas Nash
I went back earlier tonight just to sample two Sichuan dishes....dan dan noodles and spicy sauce dumplings (for some reason they told me they didn't have the spicy wontons), and both were mediocre. The DDN I should have tossed and mixed further, and despite the really scary red looking pool of chili oil, it was not terribly spicy to me (in fact needed some table side chili sauce to kick it up a little bit). I guess I don't particularly enjoy Sichuan style food that much, at least not in SF Bay Area. I would probably return to try the non spicy dishes, but those two items I ordered did not wow me at all.
I can't recall if I ever noticed Rou Jia Mou, come to think of it, at Beijing Restaurant, at least it is not on their online menu which is probably not up to date. The one at Taste Good Peking in Milpitas is splendid, and surpasses Everyday Beijing's by far. Xi'an is Islamic Chinese territory, so I would suspect this is a beef version if that's how they call it at Yi Yuan, rather than pork that is in EB's or TGP's versions.
Some of the menu translations at Yi Yuan are pretty wacky, ditto for the Chinese name which won't really give you any idea of what the dish is like or how it is prepared
Wu bei suan tsai yue - extremly pickled fish
A fish dish just named "Bad Slip Fillets" (who is going to order this that is not Chinese?)
Yang Zhou Cook Gansi (for those who don't know that gansi are tofu/firm bean curd noodles, what are they going to do?)
Gluttonous Frog (eating a greedy frog?) which is a pretty direct translation of the Chinese characters for the dish.