Yang’s Kitchen will return to serving diners on April 15. The Alhambra restaurant, which opened in August 2019 and quickly rose to local and national prominence for its meticulously sourced Chinese cooking, served as a neighborhood grocery store throughout the pandemic, only occasionally preparing family-style meals and one-off specials. But with Los Angeles’s lowered COVID infection rates and increase in vaccinations, the restaurant is reopening with updated lunchtime offerings, a reimagined brunch menu, and a new 18-seat patio.
The changes reflect the lessons chef-owner Chris Yang and front-of-house lead Maggie Ho learned from the restaurant’s rapid rise and its pandemic pivots. The past year provided the duo time to rethink how to balance their values with the cost of running a restaurant and diners’ expectations. For Yang and Ho, this latest iteration of Yang’s Kitchen is a more sustainable business that delivers the same carefully sourced and cooked dishes that diners have come to know the restaurant for.
In many ways, Yang’s Kitchen was like the analogical duck before the pandemic hit. To onlookers it seemed like the restaurant had everything — diners clamoring for Yang’s prized beef noodle soups and whole-grain scallion pancakes, along with the attention of tastemakers and regulars in its neighborhood. But beneath the surface the restaurant was trying to stay afloat. “Everyone from the outside sees we’re really busy and there’s a lot of people, but it was a tough time for us because we were still trying to figure out our stuff in the kitchen and business-wise, but it just kept getting busier and busier,” says Yang. “So we just started staffing and doing stuff to survive. And it was just trying to just grind it out until we figured things out.”
Despite the crowds at lunch and dinner, the restaurant was barely breaking even due to the high cost of labor and ingredients, which wasn’t wholly reflected in the menu’s pricing. Still, Yang hesitated to charge diners more out of fear of alienating locals by not meeting their expectations for what Chinese food should cost. For instance, nearby Taiwanese bakery 85 Degrees charges just $2 to $3 per pastry, while Lunasia down the street prices its dim sum well under $10 per dish. And while there’s been some progress in shining a light on the hidden costs of inexpensive food, the belief that Chinese food ought to be cheap remains prevalent among diners at large. “We increased prices once, but it wasn’t too much. We still wanted to keep it accessible,” Yang says. “After months and months [of] looking at our numbers, I think our food still needed to go up in price — like a lot more — to make it work.”
While Yang and Ho were considering another price hike prior to the pandemic, as well as removing a few menu items to streamline the kitchen’s operations, they never implemented those much-needed changes due to the breakneck pace at which they were running. So when the first state- and citywide pandemic shutdowns happened in March 2020, they closed the restaurant’s doors, took a step back, and reconsidered their business model. “[COVID] forced us to look at other aspects of the business and other aspects of ourselves,” says Yang. “It forced us to expand our repertoire and think outside the box.”
Yang’s Kitchen emerged several weeks later, like many restaurants did, as a community market, offering its neighbors access to local purveyors for eggs, poultry, seafood, and produce. The restaurant also sold prepared foods sporadically when staffing allowed, such as the baked pork chop rice that appeared in August and the chilled tofu with salmon roe sold in January. “It just felt like every restaurant had a lot more flexibility during COVID,” says Yang. “We would try a few things, and then if it was too much work, we would pull it, and then we would try something else.” The space to experiment allowed Yang more freedom in the kitchen, and it also taught him a critical lesson in menu pricing.
While nearby establishments offered family meals priced in the ballpark of $40, Yang’s Kitchen sold a $55 roasted chicken family meal that sold out several times a week. The restaurant’s Mother’s Day prime rib dinner and recent Super Bowl package also exceeded expectations. “It gave us the confidence to not just price things the way we want to but cook things that usually cost a little more,” Yang says. “Just little steps like that kind of showed us that people in the neighborhood were willing to accept higher prices because of the trust they had in us.” The success of each special made him realize that diners were willing to pay more for food with higher-quality ingredients.
The new lunch and brunch menus reflect this hard-fought understanding of both the business’s and the diners’ capacity, striking a balance between the restaurant’s ethos and the costs of ingredients and labor. The beloved dishes that put Yang’s Kitchen on the map — the beef noodle soup, scallion pancakes, and braised pork rice — are no longer available but may appear as specials in the future. “Restaurants are usually pretty static from the day they open, so it’s been hard for us to explain to some customers why we don’t have [specific menu] items or what we’re doing next,” Yang says.
Highlights from the lunch menu include salt-and-pepper fried chicken wings, cold sesame noodles (a carryover from the original menu), and a set meal that offers a choice of protein served alongside seasonal vegetables. The brunch menu “blends in our Asian heritage,” says Yang. The requisite breakfast pancakes use local grain miller Grist & Toll’s blue cornmeal fortified with Koda Farms’s mochiko flour for a chewy, mochi-like short stack. The Yang’s Set Meal, Yang’s take on a traditional Japanese breakfast that appeared on the original menu, will be returning for brunch-goers too. Peads & Barnetts bacon and sausage, as well as plenty of produce from the Alhambra farmers market, round out the brunch offerings. “We haven’t served anyone for over a year, and we’re gonna have a lot to figure out in terms of service [and] food with the new menu,” says Yang. “We’re just gonna open and see how that goes, but not everything [will] be perfect.”
While there’s no saying what the months ahead will bring, the restaurant’s newfound nimbleness and sharper focus on its bottom line — along with its continued commitment to impeccably sourced ingredients — bode well for its legion of devoted diners and future success.
Lunch is served Thursdays through Mondays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., while brunch is available on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Though not immediately available on April 15, Yang’s Kitchen will eventually offer family-style takeout meals, grab-and-go dishes, and grocery items Thursdays through Mondays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.