When I moved to Idaho in 1989, my family lived in a hotel for four months. We were waiting for our house to be built, and home-style meals were hard to come by unless you count continental breakfast. We started venturing into the downtown dining sector, and one of our immediate favorites was Yen Ching. Every time we went in, the owner Phillip greeted us by name and slipped us a special dish that wasn't on the menu. We felt almost like family to people we hardly knew, and I never forgot the level of service, kindness and quality.
Fifteen years later, I have a new list of haunts and a culinary bent that doesn't favor the heavy sauces and batters common to Chinese cooking (at least Americanized Chinese cooking). The boy is a huge fan of Chinese, even the cheap chains, and we struggle sometimes to balance my taste for what I consider "healthy" and his taste for what he considers "edible." But I figured if any Chinese restaurant in town could please us both, it would be Yen Ching.
We decided on a quiet Sunday lunch after a morning of shopping, and it felt good to sink down into the familiar mauve booths. Far from formal, the ambiance is simple, clean and comfortable with lots of windows and wall-sized scrolls depicting courtly life in stylized illustrations. The hostess brought water and menus that, as far as I know, have not changed in a decade. Almost everything seemed the same, and it made me feel all the cozier.
Over a silver pot of basic black tea, the boy and I decided on entrees. I went for my all-time favorite--Moo Shu Pork, a dish made with shredded pork, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, egg and soy bean all wrapped in a thin Mandarin pancake with Hoisin sauce. The boy went for his favorite as well, Mandarin Chicken, or "Yen Ching Chicken." While we waited, our waitress brought hot egg drop soup, and the velvety broth was the perfect tonic for a cold, foggy, day.
In less than ten minutes, maybe even less than five, our food was on the table. The boy's chicken was the standard pile of breaded, fried chicken atop a mound of steamed white rice with vegetables and sauce. The chicken proved tasty, made from big pieces of breast and thigh and crispy breading that didn't overpower the meat. The vegetables were the same carrots and peas that came in the soup, and the sweet, syrupy sauce had been ladled a bit too generously. We found ourselves trying to rescue the meal from the cloying sauce, but in the end, we lost a few morsels.
My Moo Shu Pork was almost exactly as I remembered, a nice mix of slivered vegetables, cloud ear mushrooms, green cabbage and tender, mildly sweet pork. I spread some dark, rich Hoisin sauce on a rice-flour pancake and threw on four or five big spoonfuls of filling before folding it into a fragile envelope. As the first bite exploded in my mouth and all over my hands, I remembered what I like about Chinese food. It has the same familiar goodness that makes mom's pork chops so good. Maybe it's just Yen Ching, but there's something always satisfying about ordering a number 59 extra spicy.
The verdict? Yen Ching is consistently fast, affordable and good. It doesn't knock my socks off, but it's something I come back to when I want a sure thing.
--Erin Ryan has the record for blank fortune cookies.