One of dozens of eateries in south Sacramentos bustling Little Saigon district, Yangs 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 dont. Theres no wine or beer on the premises.
But dont be misled by appearances. Yangs 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 Yangs Noodles, the magic reveals itself at the table and, unlike so many lesser restaurants in this category, theres little if anything served there that will underwhelm your palate.
In a town where Cantonese-style Chinese food dominates the landscape, Yangs 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). Its been here the longest, starting with the wave of Chinese immigrants arriving for the Gold Rush. Its seasonings are restrained and balanced, there isnt a lot of spicy heat, and stir frying and steaming are among common techniques.
The cooking at Yangs has nuance, but also plenty of pop. Our server one night described the style as Mandarin, but that didnt necessarily help us zero in on what to expect with the food. When we asked her to elaborate, she replied: Lots of flavor.
She wasnt overselling. To dine at Yangs 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. Youll find spice and heat, and if youre 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, Yangs is probably not a destination restaurant, though theyll 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.
Youll want to order something to go with it. If youre 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 Yangs? Sure, tendons are cheap cuts, but theres 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. Yangs tendon is sliced in paper-thin ribbons and is fun to nibble.
Theres also a combo option where you can get the beef tendon and the spicy pork stomach on the same appetizer plate. The stomach I didnt ask what exactly they meant by stomach, but its not, say, like fatty, rich pork belly. Its 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 youre 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. Theres 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, Ive 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 Yangs, theres 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, its an outstanding soup thats exceptionally spicy. Theres 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 hes had.
If youre seeking comfort rather than risk, try something thats a cross between an oversized egg roll and an exotic, bewitching burrito its called Chinese beef roll, and its one of the more low-key dishes when it comes to flavor. Its 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 chefs 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 dont-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 Yangs 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. Theres 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 thats black and glistening and very nearly a deep blue or purple. Its 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. Theres a slow transformation and new flavors develop. And the smell; its absolutely sulfuric.
The odor call it an aroma if you wish is overpowering. But get past it and youll 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 wont eat it.
If sulfur-smelling, bruise-black eggs land too far outside your comfort zone, Yangs 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. Theyre mildly tasty and tender and work well with the simple chunks of chicken.
I have visited Yangs 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, its the bona fide star of the show. Theres something so simple and satisfying and soulful about enjoying a bowl of soup. This soup alone is an eating experience that makes Yangs, underwhelming as it may initially appear, something truly exceptional.
5860 Stockton Blvd.,
Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. except Tuesday, when it closes at 2 p.m.
Beverage options: Tea, soft drinks
Noise level: Quiet
Ambiance: The room is relatively generic and brightly lit. Plenty of seating in mid-sized open dining area.
Overall * * * (out of 4 stars)
With a commitment to quality and tradition, Yangs Noodles serves consistently good Chinese food with a cuisine based on the dishes from northern China and Taiwan.
Food * * *
If you want to know what Yangs is all about, try the beef noodle soup. Its big enough to share with a companion. The broth has an intensity and balance, and the noodles made on site are outstanding. The menu has plenty of other highlights, including an exciting soup called Szechuan boiled fish, two hot pots, and a variety of appetizers such as the spicy beef tendon and the thousand-year-old egg.
Service * * *
During three visits, the service was friendly, timely and often fun. The servers will offer guidance if asked.
Value * * * *
$6.95 for beef noodle soup large enough to share. $11.95 for a hot pot that could satisfy a table of four. Most main dishes range from $6.50 to $8.95. Appetizers are $2.95 to $4.95. Because there is no alcohol, it is easy for two people to dine well here for under $25.
Call The Bees Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.