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Jan 13, 2013 08:07 AM

Yunnan Kitchen - Finally Americanized Chinese Food Done Right (Part 2)

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In my last post on Mission Chinese I discussed the evolving nature of “Americanized Chinese” food and how Mission Chinese is an example of Americanized Chinese evolving into something worth checking out (in my opinion). However, I entitled it “Part 1” because there is a second example of this in New York and its Yunnan Kitchen.

Yunnan Kitchen serves food that is influenced by Yunnan food. Yunnan is a province in China that borders Burma, Laos and Myanmar. In China, it’s known for among other things its nice weather, large number of minorities and its variety of mushrooms. The food is supposed to be quite different including very odd things like use of cheese which is completely unheard of in the rest of China and “Yunnan” food is somewhat of a misnomer because there are some many different minorities that I think “Yunnan” food can mean different things to different people there. Anyhow, I’ve only had it maybe once or twice as it’s not that common in most of the cities I normally visit and I’m not even sure if I’ve even actually met anyone from Yunnan.

There is a decent amount of information about the restaurant in this NYT article, which you can see here ( Funny enough their “training” consisted of going to Shanghai and Beijing to two weeks (very far away from Yunnan) and training in some Yunnan restaurants there. So, I think it’s fair to say that this is a very loose interpretation of Yunnan cuisine.

The restaurant is well done; it’s got a very cool and relaxed feel to it with minimalist decoration and nice exposed brick walls. It’s a great place to have dinner with friends. The service has always been pretty good and everyone is nice. Also, be aware that there is usually a wait on Thursday-Saturday night.

Here’s what I’ve tried:

Pickled Green Papaya Salad:
This is shredded green papaya with warm shredded chicken, herbs and chilies. I was hoping this would be similar to the Thai papaya salads or even the Vietnamese papaya salads. However, I found this dish to be a bit too bland. It didn’t have any of the spice or the tart and sweet flavors of a normal papaya salad. This was a bit of a dud for me. 6.75/10

Mint Salad:
This was hen of the woods mushroom, frisee and mint salad. This was the other dish that I wasn’t crazy about, it was better than the green papaya salad, but I didn’t think there was too much too it. It was pretty similar to most other salads you get. Mind you it wasn’t bad, but just nothing special. 7/10

Charred Eggplant:
This was charred eggplant that was served cold with sawtooth herb, crushed peanuts and chilies. The eggplant was cooked nicely and was tender. It had a bit of spice to it and was a little sweet and tangy as well. I think I would’ve liked it better if it was served warm, but overall it was a decent dish. 7.5/10

Fried Potato Balls:
These were fried potato balls spiced with Yunnan spices and served with a soy-vinegar. These were really nice; they were nicely crispy, but weren’t greasy at all. The soy-vinegar sauce was the perfect complement to the fried potato balls. Overall, I thought these were great. 8.25/10

Tea Smoked Duck:
This was sliced cold tea smoked duck breast served with house pickled cucumber and salted peanuts. I actually don’t like tea smoked duck that much; it’s alright, but it’s not something I go out of my way for. However, I enjoyed it here. It’s much more delicate and lightly flavored than most tea smoked duck. The duck breast meat was nicely tender and it almost tasted more like a French dish than a Chinese dish. Overall, it was a solid dish. 8/10

Ham Rice Cakes:
This was Chinese rice cakes (nian gao) stir fried with chilies, tomato and pea shoots. I’m generally not the biggest fan of nian gao, but I got them because a friend likes them. These were pretty decent though. The tomato went surprisingly well with them and the slight tart flavor from the tomato gave it a nice tangy flavor and tasted good with the ham. It wasn’t really spicy at all and was generally a pretty simple dish, but not bad. 7.5/10

Stir Fried Mushrooms:
This was a variety of mushrooms stir fried with sawtooth herb, ham and peppers in a soy sauce. I love mushrooms, so this was a good dish for me. It tastes just like it sounds, but the flavor of the mushrooms pairs nicely with the saltiness from the soy sauce. Overall, a solid dish and tastes great with some rice. 8/10

Lamb Meatballs Shao Kao:
They have a shao kao section which means BBQ in Chinese and in particular is referring to BBQ skewers. In many places in China, particularly Northern China, skewers are a very popular dish. I’m not sure how prevalent they are in Yunnan (or not), but given that these chefs went to Beijing and Shanghai to train, I’m not surprised they picked these to put on their menu. These were lamb meatballs on skewers grilled and dusted with cumin and chili powder. The meat is perfectly cooked and the cumin and chili powder give it really good flavor. These are definitely one of the “must order” type dishes here. 8.5/10

Spicy Pork Shao Kao:
This is the same as the previous except with really juicy and tender pieces of pork with the perfect amounts of tender fat. These are really good as well and maybe the best dish here. 8.5/10

Crispy Whole Shrimp:
This is whole butterflied shrimp with salt, chili, lime and fried lime leaf. The shrimp is really nicely cooked and is nicely tender. The combination of salt, lime and chilli is a good one for this dish. It’s a pretty simple dish, but it’s excellent. Also, try eating the fried lime leaves, it sounds weird, but they’re tasty. 8.5/10

Steamed Market Fish:
I can’t remember what kind of fish it was, but it was a white fish filet served with seasonal mushrooms, Chinese chives in a Shaoxing wine sauce that I’m pretty sure had some soy sauce in it. The sauce is similar to the sauce that the mushrooms were in. The fish was light and clean tasting with no fishiness whatsoever. The sauce was really nice and paired well with the fish. Overall, this was a nice dish. 8/10

Chinese Sausage Fried Rice:
This was fried rice with Chinese sausage, seasonal mushrooms and Chinese greens. This was pretty straight forward fried rice. I love Chinese sausage so that was good; the rice had good flavor as well. However, it didn’t have enough wok hay, which is the smoky flavor that you get from cooking food in a wok at a very high temperature and it also wasn’t fluffy enough. That said overall it was a tasty dish. 7.75/10

Ma La Fried Chicken:
This is a special that is on the chalkboard. However, they’ve offered it every time I’ve been here. The chicken is crispy on the outside, but really nicely tender on the inside. It’s also not greasy whatsoever. The flavor is very ma meaning it has a lot of the numbing flavor and it is also la (spicy), but not crazy spicy. I like this dish a lot and its definitely another “must order” type of dish. 8.5/10

Overall, I enjoyed this restaurant a lot and while it has its hits and misses, the hits are very good and it’s become one of my favorite restaurants in the Lower Eastside. I highly recommend checking it out.

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  1. I like it, but not as much as MCF.

    3 Replies
    1. re: mitchleeny

      its totally different food, i like both in their own ways

      although i think the better dishes here I can eat more regularly than i could the ones at MCF; while i really like sichuan style food (which MCF gets its influence from) its always been a style of food that i can only eat sometimes (alot of spice, salt, oil etc)

      1. re: Lau

        I can understand that. My response comes more from the fact that you're considered it Americanized Chinese food, the same as you're considering MCF in that vein.

        I'd say Yunnan Kitchen is more approachable for the neophyte.

        1. re: mitchleeny

          its totally reasonable to compare them in the context of americanized chinese food. However, they just are much different in their styles of food, I think MCF is more of a flavor bomb whereas Yunnan is a little more subtle although both clearly are pretty flavorful type of places. Both are def worth checking out though

    2. Thanks for the review. I'm guessing this restaurant doesn't deliver. I'll check their website for opening hours.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Pan

        hmm not sure if they deliver or not

        1. re: Lau

          From the wording on their website, it looks like they do eat in and takeout only. Hours 5-11 except 5-10 on Sundays.

        1. Yunnan Kitchen is one of my favs and in my regular rotation.

          My usual dishes are the lamb meatballs, cold egglplant, tofu ribbon salad, and the stir-fried mushrooms w/ ham...they have also added a smelt shao-kao to the menu which i'm looking forward to trying, as i've had similar grilled&spiced fish dishes at Yunnan places in Beijing and Shanghai...

          Yunnan food is very trendy these days in China (or at least was 3 or 4 years ago when i lived there), though a bit different in style depending where you go...

          in Shanghai it's trendy in a couple places with a lots of Western clientele (Southern Barbarian, which was one of my favs there and which serves fairly traditional Yunnan dishes in an arty mellow setting and wouldn't be out of place in the East Village or SF; and Lost Heaven which is more of a glam place and serves takes on more of tribal and Burmese-influenced dishes with mixed results and lots fancy cocktails)...

          In Beijing there are lots mid-priced Yunnan places that have mostly Chinese customers and seemed to be extremely popular places for dates and groups of 20/30-somethings...

          Yunnan Kitchen's riff on Yunnan food can sometimes err on the mild side, but i really like the place and i believe they are committed to tweaking the menu and adding more dishes...and i also find the staff to be extremely friendly and's a well-run place...

          Do you get the trio of hot sauces when you were there?

          3 Replies
          1. re: Simon

            i had heard about some yunnan places popping up when i was in shanghai last time, but they weren't high on my list of places to eat when i was there, so i didnt make it to them (ive heard of southern barbarian actually, hard name to forget)

            hmm trio of hot sauces? i didnt even know about them, what were they for?

            1. re: Lau

              i tend to use the hot sauces liberally on a lot of the dishes...they include a peppery green sauce (my favorite) that's made in house, a somewhat mild red sauce, and a so-so chili oil...the green sauce goes nicely w/ the lamb meatballs...and i tend to add chili oil to the cold eggplant...

              1. re: Simon

                ah ok, i didnt know about def give it a try next time i go

          2. looks like one of the chefs is leaving...hopefully food doesn't suffer


            2 Replies
            1. re: Lau

              Actually reads like he's *the* chef, his partner's the owner of the restaurant?

              1. re: klyeoh

                yah thats right, but there is more than one chef if i remember right (besides him)