All throughout Chinese Food Week, we'll be interviewing the chefs and restaurateurs behind some of LA's hidden gem Chinese food establishments. Today: Yujean Kang's.
Yujean Kang's eponymous Chinese restaurant opened in 1991. Right off the bat Esquire named the Pasadena effort a "Best New Restaurant" and chef Kang has remained a pertinent figure in the haute Chinese scene ever since. He has forgotten more "old-school" Chinese dishes than most have tasted, and this is the only Chinese restaurant in LA where one can get a famous Hangzhou entree followed by a French-inspired red bean "crepe" dessert. Currently, he's visiting the eight Great Chinese regional cuisines by featuring rotating prix-fixe menus.
Where did you learn how to cook? Chinese - from Mom, in her Taipei restaurant. Western cuisine - San Francisco City College, Hotel & Restaurant school.
What is Yujean Kang’s storied past? “Yujean’s Modern Cuisine of China” opened in 1986 (San Pablo and Solano, Albany, CA). It received three stars from The Chronicle. Then it was passed to family in 1988. We (chef and wife Yvonne) really enjoy Taiwan, so we tried to open a restaurant in Taipei, but Taiwanese partnership did not work out. We came back to US in 1989, three day after the SF quake, so down to LA we go. Pasadena opened in 1991. WeHo 1996. Yujean Kang’s Pasadena turned 20 this year.
Wow [silence, boggled by the thought of a two decade old Chinese restaurant in SGV]. So, your favorite dish at your restaurant? Lots of dishes. Depends.
How about from the current menu? We’re doing a $20 menu special based on Beijing cuisine right now. From that menu, a pork dish: ???? “grab fried tenderloin” (a classic dish lightly battered to a crisp with three flavored sauces. This dish was a favorite of Empress Dowager Cixi. It is also a famous dish of Fangshan Restaurant, a renowned Beijing establishment opened in 1925 at Beihai Park). I also really like the sauteed chicken breast with jellyfish, cilantro, scallion from the Beijing menu.
Your favorite ingredient right now? I like to use kabocha during the fall.
Where do you eat Chinese food, if NOT from your restaurant? Din Tai Fung. I also really enjoy Cantonese food, but it’s hard to find good Cantonese in LA. In the old days, there was excellent Cantonese in the Bay Area, like Hong Kong Flower Lodge (Milbrae). You can clearly tell the difference between HK classic chefs versus the current crop of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.
What are the difficulties in running a Chinese restaurant in Pasadena? The biggest challenge is that we have a broad audience. Many are from China, they expect really authentic dishes. Yet we have caucasian repeat customers who eat their favorite dishes over and over. How do you stand in between? When you write the menu.. It's like, what's frustrating: you put down fantastic specials, but they don't move. Every chef has this problem. Shiro (of Restaurant Shiro, S. Pasadena) hates making (whole sizzling) catfish. But he has to make the catfish.
How would you make Chinese more "cool" in light of Kogi Tacos and David Chang's momofuku? After all, the Taiwanese invented pork belly gua bao, not David Chang. Hard question. You need a cool person to begin with. I'm just not cool enough! Haha! Maybe my son? He graduated from Cordon Bleu, worked at Drago Centro. Now he’s in the kitchen with me. Maybe the next generation?
·All Chinese Food Week 2011 Coverage [~ELA~]
— Tony Chen