One of the best local Chinese restaurants is also one of our hardest to find. Yunnan Garden is on Schiff Dr., an alley south of Spring Mountain Rd. that runs off of Valley View. To find it, head west on Schiff, and the restaurant will appear on your right, approximately 250 yards down.
The local Chinese community knows it’s there, though, because it has a loyal following at both lunch and dinner. This is the fourth member of a small California chain, with restaurants in three L.A. suburbs.
Maybe you’re unfamiliar with Yunnan, a province in southwestern China home to several minorities, two being the Yao and Karen. The region is known for the prized mushrooms we call matsutake, also for an abundance of herbs used in Chinese medicine. The cuisine there is quite different from anywhere else in China, but this restaurant serves only a few true Yunnanese dishes, and the rest of the menu is eclectic.
Nonetheless, it’s one of the best, most authentic Chinese restaurants in town, and definitely the best place to experience cold dishes, which are not on the menu, but prominently displayed in a huge glass case by the cashier. Almost everyone eating here orders them, and at three for $4.50, they are a ridiculous bargain.
As the pictures show, there are pig parts of all shape and size, dressed in sesame oil, such as the pig’s ear, or laced with fiery chilies, like the intestines. For the fainter of heart, Chinese greens, finely minced, are paired with Kermit green soy beans.
Chicken is chopped up with whole boiled peanuts, glistening with oil. I always get the chili marinated tofu, cut into thin rectangles. One of the more exotic dishes is foong jao, literally Phoenix claw, but in fact the more mundane foodstuff known as chicken feet, perhaps an acquired taste.
The house seaweed salad looks like bright lawn mower mulch, but is delicious, and vitamin rich. One of my favorite dishes from this cold buffet is duck tongue, tiny, flavorful and chewy. De gustibus.
But these dishes, all low in carbs, are usually only the precursor to a meal at Yunnan Garden, which has a giant, 156 item menu, enormous portions, and chili symbols to indicate hotness. Be afraid, in fact, you can be very afraid, when it comes to chili here. This is one place that does not dumb down the cooking to suit the Western palate. Actually, the staff, all of whom speak minimal English, looks surprised to see a non-Chinese come in through the front door.
At lunch, many local Chinese order soups, usually stocked with rice noodles, and colored an incendiary red. Name your poison, won ton or beef stomach, pork intestine or Guiyang spicy chicken. Any choice will blow the roof of your mouth to kingdom come.
One of the true Yunnanese specialties here is #41 Yunnan style dry beef, which looks like a pile of rusty shingles. The beef is laced with a mountain chili called a Fagara pepper, which numbs the inside of your mouth like Novocaine. Initially, there’s a burn, and then, numbness. It’s not a sensation everyone likes, but it’s addictive.
The beef is amazing, flavorful, crunchy, shatteringly crisp, like a hot potato chip. I like to pair it with ice cold beer, but commonly, it’s eaten with white rice. Another dish to try is #107, spareribs sautéed with dry preserved vegetables. The ribs come on the bone, in small, cut pieces, tossed with what tastes like a medicinal, exotic pickle.
The Szechuan section of the menu offers frog, kidney, fish, chicken or beef, all boiled in a fire engine red chili sauce. They ain’t just whistin’ Dixie, so proceed with caution. Yunnan steamed dry bamboo chicken soup in clay pot, #78, is huge, and meant to be shared. It’s so unusual, I’m not even going to attempt a description. Just try some.
There are also an abundance of lamb, tofu and vegetable dishes here, such as lamb with cumin, an Uighur dish from China’s Islamic West, a terrific oil dipped tofu, and a non-spicy young bean sprout with chives, to cool the palate. These dishes can be found, incidentally, at numbers 117, 138 and 153 respectively.
You won’t get dessert, as is the custom in most Chinese restaurants. Sugar was scarce in China throughout history, and that’s why Chinese cuisine hasn’t got the dessert range of the other great world cuisines.
I have a better idea, anyway. Why don’t you go for a foot rub, across from the restaurant in the same mall complex. To paraphrase Amarillo Slim, who once said that “sex is good, but poker lasts longer”- dessert is good, but foot rubs are better.
At 3934 Schiff Dr. 869-8885.
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