Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fresh, Vibrant, Pure Shanghai Cuisine (and Home of the Succulent, Braised Pork Shank) - Yu Garden (Shanghai Yu Yuan)

In the culinary world, the freshness of the food is one of the most fundamental and taken for granted aspects in a restaurant. We've all run into that Rotisserie Chicken that's been sitting around for too long; the rack of Ribs that tastes like it was reheated; the Banh Mi Sandwich on stale bread; or the slices of Chashu Pork (in a bowl of Ramen) that tastes like it was made 2 days ago and served from the refrigerator. You'd think that it'd be obvious and a given for the chefs and owners of restaurants to only serve what's freshly made just for your order (or prepped that morning), but, sadly, it's not always the case.

In the realm of Shanghai restaurants in So Cal, with time-intensive, slow-braised items like Hohng Shao Rou (Braised Pork) and Ti Pahng (Pork Pump), finding establishments that serve these dishes freshly made that day are becoming rarer and rarer. So when you run across a Shanghai restaurant that makes its slow-braised meat dishes fresh that morning and throws out whatever doesn't get served to ensure freshness, it deserves to be applauded. That restaurant is Yu Garden (Chinese name "Shanghai Yu Yuan"), a new Shanghai restaurant opened across from Hawaii Supermarket on Valley.

Thanks to a craving one night for Shanghai dishes, I wrangled up one of my SGV Hounds and decided to try this new restaurant, remembering the tip from Chandavkl. Yu Garden is surprisingly small, with one row of HK Cafe-style pleather booths lining one wall, and Christmas lights hanging in the window, with the kitchen taking up half the floor space.

As we sit down and order, we hear jovial conversations of Shanghai dialect between the staff and several tables (in fact, in all 4 of my visits, my SGV Hounds note that there are multiple Shanghainese families and couples that are dining here, heartily conversing with the waiters and kitchen staff in their unique dialect).

(Note: Thanks to my SGV Hounds for the pronunciation help. All Chinese dish spellings are geared toward pronunciation.)

As part of their new opening celebration, Yu Garden is offering a free appetizer to every table: Gahn Shao Hsia Ren (Shrimp with Chili Sauce).

These Shrimp are non-butterflied (which might be off-putting for some) and wok-fried in a Sweet Soy Sauce. The shell is fried to the point where it's so brittle that it's edible along with the Shrimp itself. It's a decent dish, but nothing stellar.

But then imagine a transformation of a typically boring vegetable - Hsi Gua (Chinese Squash) - into something so absurdly delicious that the only thing you can do is just stop and bask in its glory. (^_^) That dish is their: Hsien Dahn Huang Hsi Gua (Chinese Squash with Salted Duck Egg Yolks).

Chinese Squash can be bitter at times, and it's usually pretty mellow and conservative. But in the hands of Chef Hu Bin (a professionally trained Chef who's been cooking for over 20 years in Shanghai before moving to L.A.), it's pure genius: The pairing of the silky, simple Chinese Squash with the earthy, sulfuric intensity of Salted Duck Eggs makes for the best Chinese Vegetable dish I've had in the past few years. Excellent! :)

And then, as if things couldn't get any better, their Tuh Suh Hsiao Yuan Ti (House Special Braised Pork Shank (their version of "Pork Pump")) arrives in all its quivering, luscious glory.

I've been really disappointed with the state of Pork Pumps in So Cal recently. Perhaps it's just bad luck / timing, but the last few times I've had Pork Pumps around town, it's always tasted dull and muted; they taste like they were reheated from the day before (or longer). So imagine my delight when I bite into this ultra-tender, moist, succulent chunk of their Slow-Braised Pork Shank, and it's *so* fresh and vibrant and delicious! :)

Chef Hu only makes a few of these Pork Shanks for that day and doesn't serve any leftovers the next day; once they're out, they're out. It has a pure, slow-cooked aspect to the Pork that's so soft and tender and unctuous that it's my current favorite version of this dish right now. For comparison purposes, I used to love Lake Spring's Pork Pump years ago, but their quality has been slipping for a while. I like Mei Long Village's version for its depth of flavor (over this one), and the now defunct Green Village used to make a good version when they were on. But they've all had off nights where you could taste the reheated facet once in a while. For now, I'll take the freshness and simplicity of Yu Garden's version over the inconsistent, deeper flavors elsewhere.

The next dish to arrive is their Gahn Guo Ji (Griddle Cooked Chicken Pot).

A searing hot, large metal pot gets put before us and there's a nice pungent aroma pouring out. Bits of just-cooked-through Daikon Radish, Cucumber, Celery and Chilies give a nice, crunchy textural contrast to the spicy-salty-sour fresh Chicken chunks. Like the Pork Shank, the Chicken tastes really fresh (not reheated). And while I appreciate the freshness, this is one example where the recipe needs a bit more tinkering: It has a nice tart-spicy edge and goes well with Steamed Rice, but it's not something I'd find myself ordering again.

Overall, the first visit was quite satisfying, and I couldn't wait to return to try more dishes. During my 2nd visit, one of my Westside Hounds brings along a friend from Shanghai (a big food lover), so I'm curious to hear what they think of this restaurant. :)

They want to start with a simple, tried-and-true dish: Hsiang Gahn Rou Hsi (Shredded Pork with Dry Bean Curd).

It's a decent version of the dish, but nothing to write home about. Chef Hu uses fattier strips of Pork than what I'm used to, but the Dried Bean Curd is fine.

Their Zao Liu Yu Pian (badly translated as "Fish Slices Fries with Wine" :) quickly makes up for it.

While it's not live fish, the Boneless Fish Slices taste fresher and thankfully not like dirt/mud that seem to plague many local restaurants with their Fish Slice dishes. But it's the Zao Ru - sort of like a fermented byproduct from Rice Wine making (as our server explains) - that really gives this dish its standout characteristic: It's enchantingly fragrant and has an alluring sweetness, and is wonderful with the Bamboo Shoots and Wood Ear Mushrooms.

Unfortunately, their Xiao Lohng Bao (XLB) ("Steamed Pork Buns") fall short.

Their Xiao Lohng Bao's have too thick a skin, leading to an imbalance of too much dough that overpowers the Pork and Broth filling. It's not horrible, but it's not going to topple the foodie favorites from the SGV.

Their Hohng Shao Rou Bai Yeh Jie (Braised Pork with Bean Curd) arrives next.

I've actually stopped ordering Hohng Shao Rou recently because too many places serve this reheated; it has the funk of being made 1-2 days earlier and reheated to order. But my guests wanted to try Chef Hu's version and I'm so glad we ordered it. :)

While it's a little firmer than I prefer, the chunks of Braised Pork taste so *fresh* and focused, reflective of their cooking philosophy. There's a pure, Light Soy Sauce flavor coming through, and the mix of fatty bits with lean meat in the Pork chunks are delicious with Steamed Rice. :) The Bean Curd Ties are a great textural complement to the dish, and help alleviate the strain of the dish turning too heavy. Delicious. :)

Their Hohng Shao Doh Fu ("Tofu Pot") is a fine example of simple, clean, focused cooking techniques.

Ostensibly, a simple, homely dish, but that's the beauty of their Hohng Shao Do Fu. Silky slabs of Tofu, Bamboo Shoots, Snow Peas and Mushrooms cooked in a Soy Sauce-based Brown Sauce. There's a purity and simplicity to it that's subtle and appreciated.

One of their most unexpected surprises is their Chuen Juen (Shanghai Style Egg Rolls).

Growing up in So Cal, Egg Rolls have always seemed to be a snack made for tourists, served with some horrific, artificial, glowing Sweet Red Sauce of some sort. :) I never order Egg Rolls at Chinese restaurants, but my guest from Shanghai was craving a bit of the homeland so we obliged.

As I'm about to take a bite, I look up and notice a beaming smile coming from both my Westside Hound and the Shanghai guest. I quickly take a bite and realize why: A super-light, flaky, *thin* crispy, crackling skin gives way to this liquid, piping-hot center of pure Da Baicai (Napa Cabbage) essence! Wow.

I've never had an Egg Roll like this before, and my Shanghai guest explains that this is "a real Shanghai Egg Roll," not the Westernized version that's more commonly found. They seem pleasantly surprised and says that it's pretty close to home. I'm just happy to have found my new favorite Egg Roll in L.A. :)

Their Tsohng Yoh Bing (Green Onion Pancake) doesn't fare as well.

Yu Garden's version is a bit on the greasy side, and too thick. It's a decent version, but there are better ones around town.

On another visit, we begin with their Suan La Tahng (Hot and Sour Soup). It's an adequate version of the classic soup, with sufficient tartness and decent peppery heat, but nothing to get too excited about.

On our server's recommendation, we decide to try the Bah Bao La Jiang (Eight Treasures in Hot Sauce).

While I've had Bah Bao Fahn (Eight Treasures Rice) dessert more times than I can remember, this is the first time I've tried this savory Eight Treasures in Hot Sauce. Per its name, this dish usually contains 8 components to complete the dish. Yu Garden's version contains: Dry Bean Curd, Shrimp, Bell Peppers, Mushrooms, Chicken, Bamboo Shoots, and Cucumbers. The missing eighth ingredient is Chicken Gizzard, but our server mentions that since it's not that popular in the U.S., they've withheld it from the dish.

While it sounds pretty interesting, the end result is a bit underwhelming: It's very sweet (heavy use of Tianmian Jiang (Sweet Bean Sauce)), slightly spicy and the Shrimp tastes a bit too briny (the only dish I've run across that wasn't as optimally fresh as possible).

The second of the recommended dishes from our server is their Tahng Tsu Hsiao Pai (Sweet and Sour Spareribs (lit. "Sugar and Vinegar Riblets")).

I never thought I'd see the day when any of my SGV Hounds would be ordering "Sweet & Sour" anything, but our server assures us that this version is an authentic Shanghai dish, similar to the more popularly named "Shanghai Hsiao Pai Gu" ("Shanghai Riblets").

True to its name, fresh Pork Spareribs are deep fried and then sauteed in a wok with Black Rice Vinegar and Sugar. It's sweet and tart, and better than the mainstream versions of "Sweet & Sour," but the Pork Ribs while very fresh, are a bit too firm at times.

Unlike their XLB, their Ji Tsai Hwun Twun ("Green Leaf Wonton") are excellent little pockets of goodness. :)

The little Wontons are very different from the more popular Cantonese / Hong Kong version, with a simple filling of Marinated Ground Pork and Shepherd's Purse greens. The delicate herbaceous Shepherd's Purse and pure Pork flavors come shining through, especially given the backdrop of their Gao Tahng, a light Pork Bone Broth adorned with Green Onions and bits of Egg.

(Note: Chef Hu doesn't add MSG to any of his dishes. The only MSG to be found would be the small amount that occurs in the Soy Sauce itself.)

Another standout dish would be their Tai Tiao Hsiao Huang Yu (Yellow Croaker with Seaweed).

It's nice that they use deboned Yellow Croaker fish instead of larger blocks of Grey Sole or Rock Cod that's used at some other places. The Hsiao Huang Yu tastes bright, oceany (in a good way), with a slight crunch in the batter, which is infused with a briny Seaweed that Chef Hu imports direct from Shanghai (he wasn't happy with the quality of the Tai Tiao found through local suppliers). This all adds up to one of the better versions of this dish I've tried recently.

I couldn't wait to let my guest try out (and for me to repeat) the mouth-watering, porcine experience that is their Tuh Suh Hsiao Yuan Ti (House Special Braised Pork Shank), so I happily order it again. :)

And from the first touch of the fork against the Braised Pork Shank (that causes it to easily yield and reveals a silky, super moist mass of long-stewed Pork heaven :), I'm happy to report that even on my 3rd visit, the Braised Pork Shank is as fresh-tasting and pure as my 1st visit. If they can maintain the freshness (so far, so good) and develop the flavors a bit more, this could become the definitive Pork Pump-style dish in So Cal. :)

On my 4th visit, we begin with their wrongly translated Nan Gua Hsien Bei Gun ("Pumpkin with Fresh Snail" (Note: It's not "Snail" but actually "Scallop" :)).

I'm usually not a big Pumpkin fan but this has to be hands-down, the best savory Pumpkin dish I've ever had anywhere. :) It sounds weird on paper, but it's a pure, magical distillation of Pumpkin essence that's so fresh, focused and simply lovely. The shredded Scallop adds a nice sea breeze counterpoint to the Pumpkin Soup. Delicious.

One of the daily specials this evening is their Hohng Shao Hsiao Huang Yu Do Fu (Braised Yellow Croaker with Tofu).

These are whole, little Yellow Croakers, slowly braised in a Light Soy Sauce. The Yellow Croaker tastes clean and vivid, and the Braised Tofu is a nice accompaniment. If there's one drawback it's the amount of bones in the Yellow Croaker, so those that don't like to fuss with fish bones should avoid this dish. Overall, I prefer their (deboned) Yellow Croaker in Seaweed preparation more than this version.

The last savory dish of the night is Pahng Hsieh Tsao Nian Gao (Crab with Rice Cake).

The Nian Gao (Rice Cake) slices are soft and supple, but what really makes this dish sing is the live Crab's inherent sweetness and bright brininess. It's perfectly cooked, and completely satisfying sucking out the fresh Crab meat while eating the Nian Gao. The intense and beautifully oceanic Crab Eggs and Guts are a great finisher.

If there's one dessert to get at Yu Garden, it would have to be their Gwei Hua Jio Niang Hsiao Tahng Yuan (Rice Ball with Rice Wine Sauce).

Chef Hu makes his own Jio Niang, the Rice Wine essence that's at the heart of this dessert, and the difference is remarkable (compared to other places around town). This dish first engages your sense of smell with some really fragrant Gwei Hua (Sweet Olive Flowers). I've had this dessert numerous times in the past 3 years, but this is the first time I've had it with Sweet Olive Flowers this aromatic.

It's only lightly sweet, allowing the Jio Niang flavors to shine and letting the Sesame Rice Balls to provide the rest of the sweetness to round things out.

Service is about as expected for this little San Gabriel Valley eatery: There are no busboys, so 2 waiters cover the needs of the entire restaurant, from clearing dishes to refilling tea and drinks and more. Yu Garden has a Lunch Menu from $4.55 - $6.55. Their Dinner Menu ranges from $2 - $29.95 (for the Eight Treasures Duck), with most dishes averaging ~$8. We averaged about ~$18 per person (including tax and tip). It should be noted their wonderful Braised Pork Shank ("mini Pork Pump") is only $8.95.

While simplistic at times, Yu Garden (Shanghai Yu Yuan)'s focus on freshness and its clarity of Shanghai dishes deserves to be commended. From their fresh Hohng Shao Rou (Braised Pork), to the delicious Shanghai Style Egg Rolls, to their earthy, vibrant Pumpkin Soup with "Snail" (Scallop) and the succulent, juicy House Special Braised Pork Shank, Yu Garden is a good place to stop in for some Shanghai cuisine. With some more development of its recipes, it has the potential to become a permanent mainstay of the San Gabriel Valley.

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

Yu Garden (Shanghai Yu Yuan)
107 E. Valley Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
Tel: (626) 569-0855

Hours: [Lunch] Thurs - Tues, 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Thurs - Tues, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Closed Wednesdays.


weezermonkey said...

So comprehensive! I love pork shank.

Noah said...

Okay. I REALLY want to go here. Great work, as always.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Thanks. :) Yah, Braised Pork Shank / Pork Pump is one of those great comfort food dishes I love getting when I visit my SGV Hounds. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Doumo. :) Definitely check it out and let me know what you think. :)

gourmetpigs said...

Wow, another great find!
I went to Shanghai a few months ago but didn't know what to look for besides XLB and the shen jien bao. I wish this post was up then! :P
Now I'll have to here and try the hsi gua and the pork shank.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Very nice (Shanghai trip)! :) Let me know what you think of the great Chinese Squash with Duck Eggs and Braised Pork Shank. :)

Will said...

Sounds great - definitely plan on checking it out soon, and I applaud your thoroughness.

I'm not a big fan of the phonetic spellings, especially since they're not entirely consistent in the article, and even given that they're a little closer to the English pronunciation than they would be if you used a standard system like Hanyu pinyin, I still don't think a non-speaker would be able to successfully order these dishes based on the post. Giving the characters and / or standard pinyin and the English translation on the menu would probably be more helpful.

How is the texture of the niangao here?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Will,

Thanks for your thoughts. Definitely let me know how your visit goes. I hope you like it. :)

Re: Romanization - I actually like to use proper romanization when possible for various languages, but the Chinese romanizations I've seen just don't make a lot of sense to me (non-speaker). For example, someone reading this blog (in English) about "Cai", when I see that, I have no idea how to pronounce that. Same for, say, "Xiao" (Small). I'd think it was "Zee-ow" (since "X" in English "Xavier" etc. is more of a Z sound). I was hoping that using more pronunciation friendly spellings would help non-speakers more than an official spelling, but if I hear more suggestions that it's not useful I'll switch over. :)

And the Niangao is great: Wonderful soft, light chew texture; not too dense or firm. Thanks. :)

Protocol Snow said...

Food looks great! I love finding out about new restaurants, can't wait to try this one.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Protocol Snow,

Thanks! I hope you enjoy your visit to Yu Garden. Please let me know how it goes. :)

Gastronomer said...

I can't get over how funny "mini Pork Pump" sounds! Thanks for the thorough write-up.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

Yes, it does sound a bit funny. :) But it's quite delicious! :) Let me know if you end up going and how it turns out. Thanks.

Drew said...

I was raised in by two Shanghainese parents and am so excited to try this place. Do you know if they have shen jian bao? The pan fried bready bao with meat filling?

And yes the typical Shanghai egg roll is plain napa cabbage (bai cai) sometimes with a little shang gu (fragrant mushroom). An order at a dim sum is almost always a winner.
Love your reviews. I'm definitely going to try this place!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Drew,

Thank you. :) Unfortunately no Shen Jian Bao there, but at least they're not trying to overreach what they can't do.

Let me know how your dinner turns out. :)

gordonbiers said...

Going to go to Shanghai in a couple of months but would definitely love to try this place before we go to compare!

btw, the la times has an article on this restaurant in today's food section.

You're ahead of the la times!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gordon,

Nice! :) I hope you enjoy your vacation to Shanghai. Yes, definitely let me know if you try Yu Garden before you leave (and how it compares to the food you get in Shanghai). :)

SauceSupreme said...

Great as always EK.

With regards to languages that don't have strict romanization like Chinese, I tend to add the characters too and at least a somewhat standardized transliteration as well as a translation.

紅燒 hong shao ("soy-braised")

Hey now that I'm a local once again, we gotta meet up.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi SauceSupreme,

Thanks. :) I just saw your post. I'm so glad you're back in So Cal! :) Welcome back.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this post, Exile, and your fantastic blog in general. My four-year-old son and I just had a terrific Sunday lunch at Yu Garden, and we have you to thank.

Keep up the great work,

Ben (and Eli)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks so much for the report back and your kind words. :)

I'm glad you had a great lunch at Yu Garden. I really think it's a nice little place to get some very good Shanghai cuisine. :)

Anonymous said...

Another great post. I like how your reviews are very comprehensive in that you're reviewing many dishes as opposed to 2 or 3 like most other reviewers. I don't know how you always manage to order so much and sample so much - but it's great for readers like me. thanks!!!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thank you. :) If my post was somehow helpful to you, it makes it all worth it. :)

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