Friday, August 10, 2018

Going Back in Time at Yen Ching

Yen Ching Restaurant
574 S. Glassell St. 
Orange, CA 92866

Yen Ching was the very first place that I ever experienced Chinese food. The year was 1982. My family was pretty conservative when it came to the food we ate when we would sporadically go out to eat. We had burgers, pizza, hot dogs, and if my parents were feeling a little crazy, we might even go to Don Jose for some Mexican food. My mom had just started a new job in Orange, and she went to Yen Ching for lunch with coworkers and that's how I eventually got introduced to Americanized Chinese food.

This was before there was a Chinese restaurant in almost every other shopping center. Kind of crazy to think that there are now 1,800 locations of Panda Express doting the US and several other countries. Orange chicken, beef with broccoli, and honey walnut shrimp are now commonplace with American consumers. I have wanted to come back to where my Chinese food journey had begun to see if it was still as good as I remember when I was an eleven-year-old kid.

As long as I can remember the rumors are always flying around that Yen Ching will be closing in the not so distant future, so just in case this happened I wanted to make it back to Yen Ching. Supposedly the land that this restaurant is on belongs to the Catholic church, and there are whispers that they want to expand the nearby Holy Family Cathedral complex. For now, this A-frame restaurant that has been here since 1978 shows no signs of moving anywhere, and they are just as busy as they have been for the last 40 years.

That's why we decided to meet my parents at 4pm on a recent Saturday, for a quick dinner to avoid the sometimes hour wait to get a table, and what my dad calls one of the loudest restaurants in OC. I'm not so sure about that, but the dining room was only filled a quarter full at this early bird dinner hour, so it was quiet enough for my dad's sensitive ears. The dining room has gotten a modern update since the last time we were here a good many years ago. It was lightened up with a paint job and white linens on the tables.

I'm not sure about your plan of attack when eating in a Chinese restaurant, but I like to do it family style, by ordering a bunch of dishes and sharing everything. The menu at Yen Ching is pretty good sized with plenty of seafood, beef, chicken, pork, and noodle dishes. There's also a prix-fixe menu that is priced at $23 per person which includes soup and appetizer, but there are only five entree options to choose from, and we wanted to pick our own, so we went the a la carte route. Let's see if Yen Ching is just as good as when I used to come here as a kid.

Katie is always up for an appetizer, and even though I knew we would be having a lot of food coming our way, we tried these Potstickers ($9.75). These pan-fried dumplings were filled with pork and vegetables and were just okay. The outer dumpling was rubbery and the pork and veggies inside failed to make any impression on my taste buds. These were boosted a bit by a plum sauce, but not enough for us to order these again.

Entrees came out in waves all of sudden and the first to hit the table was the Mongolian Beef ($16.95). This Chinese classic is a favorite at Yen Ching. The sliced beef is served with green onions and a thin brown sauce. I'm always a little partial to this dish. The beef was tender and I like the way the green onions add a tinge of flavor to this. The sauce adds a touch of sweetness but does not overpower the overall aura of this entree.

Our noodle choice on this early evening was this Chow Mein Combo ($12.95). This big mound of noodles included shrimp, chicken, beef, and veggies. I liked this chow mein as it was not too greasy and had plenty of shrimp and meat in it. A nicely done version.

Not the most popular of chicken dishes here, that would probably be the flaming pineapple chicken, but we got the Yen Ching Chicken ($16.95). Tiny cuts of chicken are coated in their signature sauce which is equal parts savory and sweet and then sauteed with chopped green onions. I liked this as well. It came out nice and hot, the chicken was tender and the sauce kept me interested. They also offer this sauce with their Yen Ching Beef.

My dad has always inspired to be a hand model, and here's another one he can add to his portfolio. I used to love the Sweet and Sour Pork ($15.25) here, but it kind of fell flat for me on this visit. The fried pork was not very tender and the sweet and sour sauce was kind of lackluster. I did like the pieces of pineapple in this though, as I tried to sneak a few extra pieces for myself while no one was looking. 

Shrimp with Walnuts ($18.95)  has always been a favorite of mine, so we gave it a try at Yen Ching. Like the pork dish, this one kind of disappointed. On the plus side the shrimp here were pretty good sized and cooked well, but the sauce was not very sweet and could best be described as drab. Very little flavor to this entree. When this dish is executed well it's magical with the briny shrimp, sweet sauce, and nutty walnuts. This plate was let down by the sauce.

Dessert is almost always complimentary when dining at Yen Ching, even though the Golden Caramelized Apple is listed on the menu for a dollar each. They always bring these and the plastic wrapped fortune cookies with the check for as long as we have been coming here. The apple is baked inside a very thick caramelized crust which has a nice sweet sauce baked into it. A sweet ending to our meal and even sweeter because it was free.

This visit brought back a lot of memories of our numerous family dinners at Yen Ching. The food seemed to be just the same as I remember eating as a kid. Most items we had on this early evening were pretty solid but did not blow me away. I'd call this above average Chinese food, but I know there is better out there. My parents thought the prices here were a little on the high side, but with the food only, we only paid $23 a person and had plenty of leftovers for the next day. A pretty good bargain I would say. Service was polite and professional, but not overly friendly. I'm glad Yen Ching is still around as it's part of my food history that has led me to my love of reviewing restaurants.

Out of five hungry hippos, (because the tabletop game Hungry Hungry Hippos was first made available in 1978, the same years as this restaurant), five being best to zero being worst, Yen Ching  Restaurant gets 3 hungry hippos.

For more information about Yen Ching, head to their website here:

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