When reviewing a Chinese restaurant, I’m usually baffled about where to start. Most menus are so vast it’s almost impossible to test a representative sample. Moreover, everyone has his or her favorite dishes, personal benchmarks for judging all Chinese restaurants. But what if my usual suspects are not the reader’s? Who cares how good the scallion pancakes are if you eat only sweet and sour pork? What if Chinese means egg foo young for you and Peking duck for me? And when will I finally be able to sort out what it really means for a dish to be Hunan or Cantonese or Szechuan or … Liaoning?
When it opened last summer, Yee Siang Dumplings promised to simplify things. Sally Mitani’s Marketplace Changes article reported that owners Weiguo Tie and Hua Bai were going to start out concentrating on the cooking of Liaoning, their native northern province. Moreover, the restaurant’s name highlights its specialty.
By the time I got there after the New Year, the menu had grown to include many standards of the storefront Chinese restaurant–General Tsou’s chicken, pepper steak, kung pao shrimp. Still, the emphases remained fairly clear, particularly when I observed what the Chinese patrons consistently ordered.
Following their lead, we skipped the egg roll to try the marinated duck appetizer, a chewy but savory glazed half bird hacked into pieces and served cold. Silk tofu with preserved egg featured soft, pillowy curds, served cold and garnished with chopped peanuts, chiles, scallions, and a preserved duck egg; it turned out to be more about contrasting and complementary textures than alluring flavors, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Shredded sesame-chile chicken, an impressive pile of unadorned meat, was also less than thrilling in the flavor department and was again presented cool. Spicy beef and tripe were gelatinous, pressed slices of meat and offal, tossed in seasonings flecked with dried chili flakes. Finally, we tried the garlic green beans, stir-fried, then chilled—are cold appetizers a thing in Liaoning?—and plated with a galaxy of chopped garlic.
Yee Siang’s signature dumplings, coming in batches of ten or eighteen small purses, can function as an appetizer or an entrée. There are ten possible fillings, and we tried five.
I’ll confess that, although I usually adore dumplings, and I saw plate after plate of them go out at Yee Siang, I didn’t find any of their fillings very memorable until we finally hit upon the pork triple delight (pork, chicken, and shrimp), which indeed delighted us. Also, I preferred them pan-fried—boiled or steamed are the alternatives—to add a bit of texture to the otherwise squishy pouches. (If you order dumplings for takeout, be forewarned that they may stuff the batch into a pint box, resulting in one large gluey mass.)
Of more interest—at least to me—was the “snack” of a pork “burger,” braised pork belly stuffed into a split baked bun—a gloriously messy and delicious sandwich easily divided into four appetizer tastes. Other snacks we tried included kebabs—chicken or lamb, slathered with a sticky glaze heavy with dried chili flakes—and the ma-la bowl, a make-your-own-dish that can be as small or as big as you’d like. Choose as many protein and vegetable options as you want, and they’ll stir-fry them together into a spicy, dark mélange. Our bowl—a mix of flounder, fish tofu (fish-flavored firm tofu), Napa cabbage, king oyster mushrooms, and sweet potatoes—tasted healthy and fresh, if not all that exciting (except for that intriguing tofu).
We did find some exciting noodle dishes. Glazed with chile oil, vinegar, and soy sauce and topped with crunchy bean sprouts, the sticky wide rice noodles were appealingly zesty. And the spicy beef noodle soup was fabulous—a deep, savory broth accented with star anise, succulent bits of meat, and thin, tender, delicious, fresh wheat noodles. (None of the spicy entrées packed that great a wallop.) This is a dish to eat in house; those wonderful noodles will grow soggy and dull during the trip home. Ditto for the lamb rib soup, where the wheat noodles were wide and flat, the broth gamey from the lamb, and the scraps of bone encased in tender meat.
We also dipped into the list of entrées. Though it featured an incredible variety and quantity of fungi, we judged the mushroom vermicelli stew a trifle bland; stirring in a few sautéed green beans added interest. Hand-ripped cabbage stir-fry utilized the tough outer leaves of the round white variety, lending plenty of spicy fiber to the day’s diet. (Leftovers cooked long enough to soften the vegetable were just fine.) We licked clean the heads of the salt-and-pepper shrimp and devoured the bodies, shell and all. And the pork belly with preserved vegetables was sumptuous, the lush, fatty meat seductively melting, along with the pickles and strands of fresh Napa cabbage, into the rich, silky sauce.
This is a family-run business, with all the quirks that can imply: odd menu translations and frequent food outages, friendly servers and slapdash service when customers pile in, and food coming out of the kitchen as it’s ready, meaning the appetizer might be the last dish you see.
But this family is clearly serving what they know, and despite the above quibbles, much of it is excellent, no matter what Chinese dish you hold most dear. Maybe we’ll all see the horizons expand, discover new favorites, and eat some really great food, even if we’re still puzzling over where exactly in China it comes from.
Yee Siang Dumplings
Sun., Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Closed Mon.
Appetizers, dumplings, and snacks $1.50–$10.99; noodles and donburi $7.99–$12.49; entrées $8.99–$17.99