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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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