Chris Yang hesitated to open Yang’s Kitchen in the San Gabriel Valley. As a Chinese-American chef cooking Chinese-American food, he didn’t want to subject the restaurant to trite criticisms about authenticity. Plus, the price he needed to charge in order to source quality ingredients wouldn’t be in line with the neighborhood’s expectations. Even though all signs pointed in a different direction, Yang ultimately took the plunge and opened Yang’s Kitchen in Alhambra this past August.
While construction and development took just a year and a half, Yang’s Kitchen was in many ways a decade in the making. When Yang and general manager Maggie Ho attended San Marino High School together, the two dreamed of opening a restaurant. “Ever since we were dating, we wanted to try all the new restaurants and cook at home — we just love eating so much,” Yang says.
“To remember all the meals Chris cooked when we were dating, I would hashtag it #YangsKitchen,” says Ho.
After they graduated from UCSD, Ho accepted an accounting job, and Yang stepped into the kitchen at chef Bryant Ng’s now-closed Spice Table. “Bryant is really smart guy, super-organized, talented, great palate. I learned all my professional cooking from him,” says Yang. “Before that I was cooking at home, and he really whipped me into shape.”
It wasn’t until Yang and Ho traveled through Asia for five months to explore its food traditions that they solidified plans for their future in hospitality. To learn the intricacies of the business, the two reunited with Ng at his Santa Monica restaurant Cassia when they returned home. “I was sous chef while Maggie worked the front of the house,” says Yang. “We were both learning as much as we could — we knew we were going to open a restaurant.”
To make their dream a reality, Yang and Ho brought on an investor with real estate holdings in Alhambra, along with seasoned chef Joseph Marcos, the former chef de cuisine at Pizzeria Mozza and alum of some of Los Angeles’s most storied kitchens, including Campanile, Ciudad, and Sona. Together, the team transformed the former Mosaic Lizard Theatre into a thoroughly contemporary fast-casual restaurant serving Yang’s personal take on comfort food. “We’re serving food that we crave, food that we experienced on our travels, food that we grew up eating,” says Yang.
To understand what’s happening inside the mind of the chef and behind the stoves at Yang’s Kitchen, it’s essential to examine its scallion pancake — a dish so ubiquitous that it is on practically every Chinese restaurant menu. At first glance, Yang’s flatbread is noticeably browned along its edges, speckled with green bits, and darker in color than other restaurants’ versions. A taste reveals delicate layers of buttery richness balanced by an earthy nuttiness. “It’s the recipe we’ve been working on for the longest time,” says Yang. “It’s like a science experiment, changing the dials on the ingredients — flour, water, salt, butter, lard.”
After a hundred trials over the course of a year and a half, Yang finally landed on a recipe using locally milled bread flour from Grist & Toll and cultured butter from Straus Family Creamery. “When I was making them at home, it was one by one,” he says. “Since our partner Joe came on, he helped us streamline the process with his French pastry background. We’re not bound by tradition. We’re just making food the best it can be, with the best ingredients and techniques.”
Yang’s overarching ambition to cook delicious food using the best ingredients is echoed at every turn. “We’re trying to make every step cleaner and healthier without compromising flavor,” says Yang. All of the restaurant’s beef is grass-fed and carrot-finished. The pork is all natural and antibiotic-free. Produce is sourced from Food Roots, a collective of Asian farmers. All of the house-made noodles and breads incorporate whole-grain flours from Pasadena’s Grist & Toll. Local pasta purveyor Semolina provides custom spaghetti and strozzapreti to Yang’s specifications. The menu gives a nod to the farmers, growers, and makers who have enabled the entire operation.
“The most important thing that diners need to see is the good-quality produce, good meat, and that everything is cooked from scratch,” says Yang. “We hope that people get it. We’re creating a new genre of food that tastes good and makes you feel good afterward.”
Just one month in, Yang’s vision seems to be resonating with diners, as evidenced by the robust crowds. “The first weekend we were understaffed — we didn’t expect so many people to know about us so soon,” recalls Ho, still shaken by the misstep. “People were fighting for a seat, and the kitchen couldn’t make food fast enough.” After closing early and regrouping, Yang and Ho called on their network of hospitality professionals, including Leah Haimowitz, the director of operations at Downtown’s Mikkeller, and Judy Han, the former corporate executive chef of Mendocino Farms, to help streamline operations.
Another early hiccup surrounded diners’ expectations of the food. “People were ordering the beef wrap and expecting the 101 Noodle Express beef roll,” says Yang. “Ours is inspired by tacos and has hot sauce and pico de gallo. It’s inspired by growing up in LA.” After slight tweaks to language used on the menu and in service, diners are starting to better understand the nuances of what’s on the plate. “The flavors are going to change because we’re not replicating authentic cuisine,” he says. “It’s a weird cultural merger.”
The beef noodle soup and braised pork rice have emerged as the restaurant’s two runaway hits. Both are Taiwanese in origin but manage to capture a real sense of place with their ethos and execution. There are countless bowls of beef noodle soup to be slurped in and around Alhambra, but the rustic, handmade noodles and deeply flavorful broth served here satisfy like few can. The same goes for the braised pork served over rice. Careful touches like a smattering of crisp golden shallots, a jammy egg, and a fermented mustard green relish transform a simple dish into a soulful one.
While Yang had good reasons for initially hesitating to open a restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, judging by the strong word of mouth and lines snaking out the door, his bet seems to be paying off. Good cooking is appreciated wherever it’s found.
The restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Yang’s Kitchen. 112 West Main Street, Alhambra, CA 91801.