One of dozens of eateries in south Sacramento’s bustling Little Saigon district, Yang’s Noodles is brightly lit, slightly shabby and has an almost fast-food feel. A fake flower decorates the front-counter tip jar, which, on a recent visit, contained six or seven dimes. The tables and chairs are unremarkable and well-worn. A handwritten sign affixed to the wall says they have ice cream, but they don’t. There’s no wine or beer on the premises.
But don’t be misled by appearances. Yang’s enjoys a stellar reputation among a small subset of serious eaters and fans of Chinese cooking that showcases robust and complex flavors.
This is no-nonsense, casual, working-class, slurp-it-up eating at its sincere best. And the focal point of the menu, the beef noodle soup, will leave you content, if not delighted, on many levels.
At Yang’s Noodles, the magic reveals itself at the table and, unlike so many lesser restaurants in this category, there’s little if anything served there that will underwhelm your palate.
In a town where Cantonese-style Chinese food dominates the landscape, Yang’s is something different – a blend of northern Chinese and Taiwanese. Cantonese cuisine is generally what most people think of when they talk Chinese food (or Chinese American food). It’s been here the longest, starting with the wave of Chinese immigrants arriving for the Gold Rush. Its seasonings are restrained and balanced, there isn’t a lot of spicy heat, and stir frying and steaming are among common techniques.
The cooking at Yang’s has nuance, but also plenty of pop. Our server one night described the style as Mandarin, but that didn’t necessarily help us zero in on what to expect with the food. When we asked her to elaborate, she replied: “Lots of flavor.”
She wasn’t overselling. To dine at Yang’s is to encounter big aromas and flavors. Meat takes center stage, including certain cuts that might make fussy eaters squirm. Rice takes a back seat compared to many other Chinese food joints. You’ll find spice and heat, and if you’re not acclimated to food ranked high on the Scoville scale, some of the dishes may leave you fanning your mouth and desperately gesturing for more water.
While vegetarians can enjoy certain elements of the menu, Yang’s is probably not a destination restaurant, though they’ll do OK as companions to someone eager to explore all parts of the four-page menu. The real signs of greatness here are expressed through the meat dishes, especially the beef noodle soup. If you are a table of two, it will be plenty for both of you, and costs just $6.95.
You’ll want to order something to go with it. If you’re up for adventure and authenticity, get the spicy beef tendon or the tofu with the “thousand-year-old egg.” The ingredients, textures and flavors are markedly different than what the Western palate is used to.
Why bother with the beef tendon at Yang’s? Sure, tendons are cheap cuts, but there’s a chewy texture worth exploring and, in this case, a deeply satisfying heat, likely from chili oil and other heat-amplifying ingredients, that inspires a light sheen of sweat on the forehead and upper lip. Yang’s tendon is sliced in paper-thin ribbons and is fun to nibble.
There’s also a combo option where you can get the beef tendon and the spicy pork stomach on the same appetizer plate. The stomach – I didn’t ask what exactly they meant by stomach, but it’s not, say, like fatty, rich pork belly. It’s more like offal, and is a gelatinous, meaty, tender, fatty and, yes, tasty dish.
The beef noodle soup comes in a steaming cauldron and, if you’re sharing, smaller bowls for individual eating. The broth has that rich depth that only comes from slow simmering, building and balancing flavor over many hours. There’s a lot to take in with this one – notes of chili, a broad underpinning of beefiness, a pinging on the palate of Chinese five-spice, from star anise to cinnamon and cloves.
Occasionally, I’ve encountered these spices in soups that feel rushed and the flavors are too bold and harsh, making for a clunky, lingering finish on the palate. At Yang’s, there’s a melding that comes from careful cooking, and those rough edges are softened.
The soup features udon-style noodles that seem oversized and nearly decadent – thick, tender ribbons of noodles that give this dish a signature quality. These egg noodles are made in-house and are the star in several other items, including a soup with preserved vegetables and shredded pork. With spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other, you can easily lose yourself in the experience.
Also worth ordering is an intoxicating soup listed on the menu as Szechuan (spelled “Sichuan”) boiled fish. It comes in a large bowl that shared that as well. Fiery crimson, it’s an outstanding soup that’s exceptionally spicy. There’s a sweetness up front followed by a mellowing note from the thick pieces of seafood, and, finally, a long and challenging wave of heat that rakes across the tongue and builds as if under pressure. Post-spoonful, one of my pals grinned and gasped simultaneously, his eyes red and watery. Did he surrender? Hardly. He gulped water and dug in for more, calling it one of the greatest soups he’s had.
If you’re seeking comfort rather than risk, try something that’s a cross between an oversized egg roll and an exotic, bewitching burrito – it’s called Chinese beef roll, and it’s one of the more low-key dishes when it comes to flavor. It’s subtle, but the portion is ample and the textures meaty and tender and inviting.
On another visit, we asked our very friendly server to recommend a series of dishes from start to finish, and she came up with what felt like a multicourse chef’s tasting menu, only we were in this casual eatery, and there would be no sticker shock (five of us ate very well for $57). After asking about our likes (everything) and don’t-likes (none), she started us with the combination beef tendon and pork stomach to get some heat on our palates.
She then brought us a hot pot of sour cabbage and pork, which helped demonstrate Yang’s broad repertoire – with flavors ranging from sweet, sour and relatively mellow to big and bold and robust. This is not laid-back eating. Part of that has to do with how different this soup is from the beef noodle, which we ordered simultaneously, to encounter the contrasts. The cabbage dish has a dulcet quality, then a subtle sour earthiness, and a rich mouth-feel from the broth and pork. There’s an intensity to it, an appreciation and a joy.
That may or may not be the case with the “thousand-year-old egg.” Here is an egg – chopped and plated with tiny cubes of soft tofu – that’s black and glistening and very nearly a deep blue or purple. It’s a legendary thing. You make these eggs by burying them in a mixture of clay and earth and perhaps straw, leaving them in subterranean slumber for weeks. The color changes. There’s a slow transformation and new flavors develop. And the smell; it’s absolutely sulfuric.
The odor – call it an aroma if you wish – is overpowering. But get past it and you’ll to notice the subtle sweetness of the egg offset by the mellow, tangy notes of the tofu. Our server came by and did a double-take.
“You ate the egg?” she asked with a laugh. “Most Americans won’t eat it.”
If sulfur-smelling, bruise-black eggs land too far outside your comfort zone, Yang’s Noodles can still entertain with more accessible, commonplace dishes. The Mongolian beef, featuring thinly sliced meat and green onions with ginger and garlic at the forefront, was a first-rate version of this menu staple. The kung pao chicken was wonderfully piquant, with lots of peanuts and green onions scattered throughout, along with red chili peppers and a light sauce.
Then there is the dish called “wooden ear with chicken,” which sounds weirder than it is. Wood ear mushrooms, as they are more commonly known, are big, thin floppy fungi that have a slip-slidy consistency. They’re mildly tasty and tender and work well with the simple chunks of chicken.
I have visited Yang’s Noodles three times in recent weeks and found myself unable to resist ordering the beef noodle soup each time. More restrained than the electrifying Szechuan fish soup we loved but labored over, it’s the bona fide star of the show. There’s something so simple and satisfying and soulful about enjoying a bowl of soup. This soup alone is an eating experience that makes Yang’s, underwhelming as it may initially appear, something truly exceptional.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.