We went to Yunnan Garden the other evening for dinner with a group of eight people.
When you walk in you'll first be seated at a table, but get up and walk to the counter where you can see a number of cold dishes (凉菜 liang2 cai4). On this trip we had a plate of these three:
苦瓜 ku3 gua1 (Bitter Melon)
猪耳 zhu1 er3 (Pig Ear)
雪菜 xue3 cai4 (Mustard Greens)
All were excellent. The bitter melon is very bitter but also refreshing cold. The mustard greens were ground and spiced with a little vinegar and hot peppers. I didn't have the pig ear, but it disappeared quickly, often eaten in combination with the bitter melon.
To start our meal we ordered the most famous Yunnan dish, guo4 qiao2 mi3 xian4 (crossing the bridge noodle soup), which was listed on the menu as:
云南风味过桥米线面 Yun2 nan2 feng1 wei4 guo4 qiao2 mi3 xian4 mian4 (Yunnan Rice Noodle Soup).
The story goes that a man was studying for his imperial examinations in a gazebo far from his house. To reach it, one would have to cross a bridge. His wife would bring him lunch each day, but by the time she reached him it would have become cold. So she innovated and designed a chicken noodle soup with a layer of oil on top to keep it warm for the journey. The modern version is not oily at all; instead it's a beautifully clear broth in which tender chicken and chewy rice noodles co-mingle. Two large bowls were plenty for eight people to have enough.
Then we ordered the following dishes:
四川担担面 Si4 chuan1 dan4 dan4 mian4 (Dan Dan Noodle)
宫宝虾 gong1 bao3 xia1 (Kung Pao Shrimp)
麻婆豆腐 ma2 po2 dou4 fu (Ma Po Tofu)
招牌炒饭 zhao1 pai chao3 fan4 (House Special Fried Rice)
云南牛干巴 Yun2 nan2 niu2 gan1 ba (Yunnan Style Dried Beef)
蒜苗臘肉 suan4 miao2 la4 rou4 (Yunnan Cured Pork with Leek)
清蒸豆腐鱼 qing1 zheng1 dou4 fu yu2 (Steamed Sliced Fish w/ Soft Tofu)
云南竹笙锅鸡 Yun2 nan2 zhu2 sheng1 guo1 ji1 (Yunnan Style Steamed Chicken in Clay Pot w/ Dry Bamboo)
I divided our order into two sections --- the first being Sichuan dishes more familiar in Chinese restaurants in the United States, and the second section being Yunnan dishes that are quite unusual. I will start off by saying that everything except the fried rice was truly excellent.
The dan dan noodles were served in a bowl large enough for everyone to have a taste. They were fresh noodles, cooked just right, topped with peanuts and layered ontop of a spicy, meaty sauce. This was an excellent version of a classic Sichuan dish.
The kung pao shrimp was ordered by someone at the table unfamiliar with regional Chinese cooking, but enjoyed both by that individual and everyone else. It was a delightful version of kung pao style, with a rich mixture of peppers, peanuts, and scallions in a slightly caramelized sauce. It was perhaps slightly Americanized (the caramelized sauce) but it's spiciness did not pull any punches and the sauce was very flavorful.
The ma po tofu was actually my favourite dish of the entire meal. The cubes of tofu were so delicate and flavorful (more like dofu hua), the sauce complex and deep (one member of the table thought that it tasted like beef noodle soup!) and the spiciness was truly fiery. Again, this was ordered by someone who wanted a familiar dish, instead of the other tofu dishes which seemed more unusual (and more interesting to me). This dish was recognizable enough that it was enjoyed by that individual, while also being such a perfect rendition of a Sichuan classic that no one at the table minded in the least. In fact, I was grateful that we ordered this, as it was so good!
The fried rice was the only disappointment of the evening. There was nothing really wrong with it, but it was slightly dried, and just an uninteresting mixture of fried rice, chopped ham, peas, and a few unrecognizable vegetables.
The Yunnan dishes were really special. The first to arrive was the Yunnan dried beef. I find it hard to describe (although I had something similar on a mountain hike in Sichuan some years ago). I believe it was air dried, like bresaola, and cured in some way, like beef jerky. It had a crunchy texture without being at all unpleasantly dry, but also a rich flavor. It was spicy to be sure, but not overly so. I thought this was one of the best of the night, my only caution being that I wouldn't order this as one's only entrée if dining alone.
The Yunnan pork was quite different. Unlike the beef, it wasn't dried at all, but cured like a ham and well marbled and very moist. There were sliced garlic sprouts and a liberal amount of light oil.
The steamed fish with tofu were tilapia slices mixed with equally sized and similarly textured slices of tofu, stirred in with a few scallions, sliced garlic, and sliced ginger all in a thin and clear sauce. I thought this is a nice example of the emphasis on texture in Chinese cuisine, as both the fish and the tofu were cooked to have similar texture, size, and color.
The best dish of all was served last, the Yunnan Style Steamed Chicken in Clay Pot w/ Dry Bamboo. This is another famous Yunnan dish that I've had in China in various forms. It should really be called Yunnan Style Steamed Mushroom and Bamboo Fungus in Clay Pot w/ Chicken Broth as the chicken is definitely secondary to the mushrooms and bamboo fungus. The soup is also slightly sweet, mostly due to the goji berries and ginger also floating around. This was a beautifully balanced soup that was easily the equal of far more expensive versions I've had in China, which incorporated rare mushrooms.
Finally, although the fried rice was disappointing, the white rice was uniformly excellent; fresh and flavorful and steamed to be quite sticky.
All in all, a really wonderful meal, of a very unusual regional Chinese cuisine. Right next door is the also excellent Dong Ting Spring, one of the only real Hunan restaurants I know of in the United States. What a treat! On a trip that also included excellent meals at Abriya Raku, Vintner's Grill, and Rosemary's, this was easily the best meal overall and by far the least expensive. Abriya Raku wins the prize for the most interesting bathroom, however!
And while Yunnan Garden offers no dessert, we walked around the corner to No 1 Boba Tea (in the large plaza right around the corner on Spring Mountain Road) where we had a variety of bubble tea, including fruit shakes made freshly with real fruit and cane sugar. Additionally, this shop has a very wide array of dried fruit along one side, including excellent dried 金橘 jin1 ju2 (kumquat) and 玫瑰姜 mei2 gui jiang1 (rose flavored dried ginger). Highly recommended.