Sasha Chan and her staff are in the eye of an unrelenting storm. It’s 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday at Yin Ji Chang Fen, the first LA-area branch of the Guangzhou-based Cantonese rice roll chain, and Chan, sister to the restaurant’s owner Marcus Ma, is greeting customers who won’t stop coming in.
To walk in to Yin Ji Chang Fen’s brightly lit strip mall location at the San Gabriel Hilton Plaza is to hear a din of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, plastic spoons scraping the last bits of chok (or rice congee) and chopsticks navigating the slippery, chewy noodles of the cheungfan.
Customers are eager to get a taste of the rice noodle rolls from the famous purveyor, which opened in July. Whether they’re keen to size up the Stateside location against fond memories of Guangzhou, or get a taste of a dish that’s very of the moment in the SGV, one thing is for certain: Business isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
According to Chan, the decision to open a branch of the famous chain, which has outlets in Pleasanton and Toronto, Canada, wasn’t too difficult.
“We got the idea to open a Yin Ji branch in LA through my friends, Tin and Steven Chan, who run the Toronto locations,” Chan says in Mandarin.
A restaurant is no easy venture, though, but Chan and Ma’s reasoning was largely rooted in nostalgia.
“I grew up eating cheungfan in Guangzhou. But when I visited the places around here, I noticed that the noodles were pretty thick,” Chan said.
Generally speaking, cooks quickly make cheungfan noodles at scale by putting them into metal drawers that uniformly steam portioned sheets that almost always come out thicker than lasagna noodles. You can see the results at even the good dim sum restaurants around LA. It’s particularly notable at Lunasia, where the thick shrimp cheungfan are a pleasure to eat but can be pretty hefty, almost overwhelming and stifling the snap of freshly steamed shrimp.
“We’re proud of the way we make our cheungfan by hand,” Chan said. “It’s what makes the Yin Ji brand famous.”
Chan points to an important distinction; that cheungfan by hand is far more labor intensive and requires dedicated oversight. A thin film of batter is ladled onto a long sheet of cloth mesh positioned over a steamer, then closed. After a few seconds where the sheet of batter is given some time to solidify, the filling for the cheungfan, which at Yin Ji ranges from shrimp and char siu pork to green onions and corn, is placed at the foot of the sheet. Another quick steam, and the sheet is removed and rolled off using a scraper tool and assembled before it’s sliced, placed on a plate and topped with a pour of light soy sauce.
The resulting noodle is thin and transparent enough to see the colors of the ingredients underneath, similar to the cheungfan available at Sea Harbour in Rosemead or the banh cuon at Tan Hong Mai in Westminster. It’s still got a bite to it, and yet the chewiness doesn’t dominate the dish, like it does when made with thicker noodles.
In addition to serving slices of char siu and chicken as fillings (instead of the usual mince), Yin Ji allows diners to add egg to any cheungfan. In this case, the kitchen rolls an impressively thin film of beaten egg into the rice noodle to give the dish some added body and heft — the perfect setup for a light meal.
For something with more substance, Yin Ji’s congee is a welcome change of pace. Preserved egg and pork congee is a bit on the salty side but riddled with little chopped morsels of the dark amber-colored egg whites. Add a youtiao, or fried crueller, for dipping and the piping hot, crunchy-fried breadsticks and salty congee come together for some salty, crispy, warm carb-on-carb nirvana. With a cold glass of freshly prepared soymilk, it’s a fantastic mid-day meal even in warm weather. Just be prepared to weather the storm of customers.
Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., cash only.
Special thanks to Ping Chen for translation.