Yu Garden (aka Shanghai Yu Yuan)

On my never-ending quest to find the Shanghainese restaurant, I ventured into Yu Garden, a newly opened Shanghainese Restaurant on the corner of Valley and Del Mar. Yu Garden is so new, it still has the new car smell. The walls are decorated with faux molding, the menus are still lacking the stickiness of well-worn Chinese restaurant menus, and the wait staff all still had that youthful, hopeful vibe in their eyes.

When BF and I placed our orders, the waiter brought out a free appetizer plate of bean sprout salad. The sprouts were savory, sweet, and did their job whetting my appetite, but I couldn’t help wondering just how much MSG one would have to put in the sprouts to make them taste so delicious.

Shanghai Yu Garden

After seeing a recommendation for the Chinese gourd (literally ‘shred melon’) with salted duck egg yolk on ExileKiss, I couldn’t stop thinking about the combination, so I ordered it. The usually bland but fresh tasting gourd was perfect with the creamy, salted duck egg yolk mixed in. Each bite was perfectly rich and soft, but never mushy. Since tasting this dish, I have to wonder, why would anyone eat this vegetable any other way?

Shanghai Yu GardenShanghai Yu Yuan

The BF ordered his usual rice ovals (nien gao) with Chinese spinach. The version on the menu, despite just listing the vegetable, also comes with slivers of ground pork, so if you want to order a vegetarian version, make sure to specify that. The nien gao was satisfying and chewy without being too hard nor too mushy. On our second visit, we ordered a different nien gao dish, the Shanghai style nien gao (but also vegetarian) and the only difference was that it came with slices of fresh shiitake.

Shanghai Yu Garden

Also worth ordering if there are vegetarians at the table is the braised tofu. The braising liquid is a bit sweet, typical of Shanghainese cuisine, but does a fine work of penetrating the custard-like soft tofu. On a subsequent visit, I ordered the braised wheat gluten puffs, which had a more solid texture than the airy, light puffs I was used to. If those puffs could be soaked in the tofu’s braising liquid, I’d call that dish a success.

Shanghai Yu YuanShanghai Yu Yuan

My modus operandi is to order a kau fu appetizer at a Shanghainese restaurant, but I decided to switch it up. Thanks to the suggestion from my dad, I ordered the baked tofu and Shanghainese wild greens which were both chopped finely and put onto a palte. The greens (ma lan tou) had an herbal taste that brought out the savory flavor of baked tofu. I also ordered a julienned chaoyte dish which was crispy, simple, and tasty.

Maybe it’s because on my first visit, I ordered all vegetarian dishes and the waiter thought I was vegetarian, but I wasn’t offered the free plate of stir fried shrimp. They did bring out a plate on my second visit and it was fantastic. Even my picky-about-seafood mother enjoyed it. Each unshelled, head-on shrimp was coated lightly with a salty, sweet, sauce that left me licking my fingers after pulling the head off each shrimp and sucking the shrimpy goodness out.

Shanghai Yu Yuan

The shrimp was so good that the seafood dish I actually ordered, fish slices in a Chinese wine broth fell short. The broth was so delicate that I could barely taste any hint of the wine, which was unfortunate because a stronger tasting broth would have masked the fishy taste of the fish better. Yeah, yeah, don’t eat fish if you don’t like a fishy taste, but fish isn’t supposed to taste fishy if it’s fresh.

Shanghai Yu Yuan

Having one dish I disliked out of the many that I ordered isn’t that bad of a start for a restaurant. Considering it’s still their first month of opening and they probably have a few kinks to work out in the kitchen, it’s not bad at all. It certainly seems like the kitchen staff hit the ground running. I think I may have just found my new favorite Shanghainese restaurant.

I also like the waiters. They’re accommodating, pleasant, and speak Shanghainese to each other. It’s great that they’re brutally honest about MSG. There’s no stigma against it in the kitchen, that’s for sure. When the waiter realized that the BF could eat regular MSG and not chicken flavored MSG (chicken bouillon cubes), he offered to take a dish he just brought out back into the kitchen to add some MSG for flavor. Another time, my mother asked if there was a lot of MSG in some dish before ordering and the waiter remarked, “That’s where all the flavor comes from!” That’s not to say that everything is laden with artificial flavor enhancers. Most of my dishes tasted great, but I wasn’t excessively thirsty afterward like some other restaurants which use a lot more MSG.

I’m glad that there’s yet another Shanghainese restaurant on Valley Blvd. I’m even more glad that it’s one that has decent dishes. I may also be biased because the restaurant is named after one of my favorite (albeit touristy) areas of Shanghai. I’m definitely going to have to go back to try some of their xiao long baos next time. I can’t believe I went twice without ordering them.

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

Bon Marche Bistro in Monterey Park

DSC_5278When I picture a restaurant named Bon Mar Che Bistro, I picture a small cafe with cozy tables covered with white tablecloth where I can order a charcuterie plate, a glass of wine, and relax with a good book.  That’s absolutely *not* what Bon Marche Bistro is about.

Instead, it’s a small, family-owned restaurant tucked behind a strip mall in Monterey Park.  It’s famed for ‘home styled’ Chinese food and more specifically, a dish which involves lots of cooked food layered in a wooden bucket.  Unlike other Chinese restaurants in the area, Bon Marche’s kitchen is fully visible, taking up one half of the restaurant.  Standing up and looking over the counter topped with plastic baskets of produce, you can watch the chef toss sizzling bits of food in the wok with expertise.  It reminded me a little of the hole-in-the-wall eateries in China where there was just a giant wok in the middle of the sidewalk.


On my first visit to Bon Marche, the woman working there was enthusiastic about the menu and the food offered.  I was still perusing the menu while waiting for my dining companions to arrive when she came up and explained their bucket dish and suggested I order it.  But I was really in the mood for claypot rice!

Luckily, when the BF arrived, he ordered a vegetarian version of the bucket dish, so the pressure was off me and the lady let me order the claypot rice with beef and egg.  Our dining companion got stir fried shrimp after helpful suggestion from the lady again.


The claypot rice arrived and I learned my lesson.  The rice to topping ratio was very skewed — a giant pot of rice and a few pieces of beef, a fried egg, and a small dish of sauce.  If I was given more sauce, which tasted great, the dish would have been better; as it was, it was lacking. The beef was tough and had a strange, unfresh taste.


The stir fried shrimp dish luckily was better. It tasted just like something my mother used to make for dinner.  The sweet shrimp and the salty sauce played on each other nicely.  When the woman delivered the dish, she exclaimed how special it was because no other restaurants served it and that other restaurants tended to overcook the shrimp.  It was a good spiel and all, but the shrimp was a bit overcooked and while it tasted good, it wasn’t something that I’d never had in any other Chinese restaurant.


Then came the highly acclaimed (by the staff anyway) bucket dish. The restaurant’s specialty. Was it all that it lived up to?  Well, considering we got a vegetarian version of it, it’s not really fair to judge, but it certainly was the best dish of the visit.  Layered on top of vermicelli noodles were baby bok choy, mushrooms, tofu, and sauce.  Everything was cooked perfectly and the sauce dripping down to the noodles underneath made them a treat to slurp up.

Despite its shortcomings, Bon Marche Bistro lives up to its “home styled” Chinese food description.  None of the dishes we ordered then and on subsequent visits were spectacular, but they certainly tasted like something that could be made at home.  A couple of dishes I got on a later to-go order had some weird tasting meat, but maybe that was just the danger of a to-go order. People visiting the restaurant shouldn’t expect fancy, banquet-style Chinese food.  The restaurant’s menu is full of unpretentious, simple, home-cooking dishes that may not look great, but at least it tastes home-made.

331 W Garvey Ave
Ste D
Monterey Park, CA 91754
(626) 236-3932

Yunnan 168: a new player in the game

DSC_5032Yunnan 168 seems to be the newest restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley to realize that there’s something about spicy Chinese food that keeps people coming back for more. Maybe it’s masochism and maybe it’s a way to show off one’s masculinity, but all I know is that when I get the craving for something spicy, it doesn’t leave till I get it.

Upon entering the clean and spacious space that Yunnan 168 popped up in, I was immediately drawn to the cold plates display table.  There were the usuals: thin sliced spicy beef, pickled cabbage, and cucumbers. There were also a few other dishes that caught my attention like the cold fava bean and the cold noodles (called ling fen noodles in Mandarin).


For about $4, you can get a combination plate of three appetizers, which is a decent deal.  I picked the thinly sliced spicy beef, the pickled green beans, and the fava beans.  The beef wasn’t as spicy as I’d like and a bit too heavy on the salt, but not a bad rendition of the classic cold plate because it still had that distinct peppery flavor.  The pickled green beans tasted fine and had that strangely appealing ashtray smokiness, but the texture of some pieces were too soft.  I prefer them fairly crisp. The fava beans were alright but nothing compared to fresh fava beans.  Next time, I’d probably order the cold noodles in their place.

DSC_5035Although I had wanted to try a spicy casserole dish or maybe dry stir-fried beef, I was really in the mood for noodles, so I ordered the house special Yunnan rice noodles.  The dish came in three separate serving vessels: the noodles in a large bowl, a plate of assorted meats and green onion, and finally the soup. The waitress combined all of them at the table into a big bowl of chicken-flavored deliciousness.

The soup was great with the green onions rounding out the richness of the chicken. The rice noodles were slippery and not too soggy at all. The thin slices of meat, which tasted like a more delicate char-siu pork, were perfectly seasoned. The slices of chicken leg were what really stood out in this dish. They were flavorful, juicy, and perfectly tender. I hadn’t had chicken cooked so well in a long time.

DSC_5037The BF ordered the restaurant’s home-style tofu, which came in a surprisingly orange color — surprising because I had expected it to be red from the chili. While it wasn’t as spicy as the home-style tofu at Yunnan Garden on Las Tunas, the flavor of the wok qi was strong and the tofu was fried on the outside and still custardy inside, which is the ideal consistency. I enjoyed the fact that the dish had that lingering taste which I associate as a precursor to a spicy bite, but the bite just never hit.


We also shared a shredded potato dish, which was also good.  The green jalapenos really work well in enhancing the wok flavor in this dish.  It’s simple, but always a favorite.

The service at Yunnan 168 was fairly good for a Chinese restaurant. Our waitress gave us a couple of smiles and seemed to take the BF’s vegetarian requests without too much trouble.  She even gave us two glasses of the restaurant’s cold qi tea to combat the spicy dishes. Even though the dishes weren’t that spicy, the tea was appreciated. It was slightly herbal with the flavor of chrysanthemum and the strange maple-syrup taste that wintermelon tea usually has.  I liked that it wasn’t overly sweet.

Although I haven’t yet tried the seriously spicy dishes at Yunnan 168, if they’re as good as the noodle soup I had there, I’ll be happy to be a returning customer,  The interior and decor reminds me of a TGIFridays or a Denny’s, but it’s fairly clean, which means if I bring my mom, she won’t have any complaints about the restaurant’s sanitation. I’m not a big stickler about that, but I know a lot of people are.

Yunnan 168 [map]
1530 San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776