A lean British man in black-rimmed glasses picks asparagus spears off his companionís plate and gives a warm hello to Yan. A woman with teased hair and four-inch heels introduces Yan to her friend with snake tattoos. An elderly woman shuffles in with her five-year-old grandson and his parents, and Yan greets them in a way that suggests that they, too, have been in a time or two. At Yanís Best Place, everyone may not know your name, but everyone knows Yan, and Yan seems to know everyone. People return for the food, for the comfortable consistency, and, presumably, for Yan. At this unassuming Chinatown fixture, itís not an anonymous crowd that fills the tables, but a collection of disparate individuals united over Cantonese, Szechuan, and Hong Kong cuisine.
All too often, Chinese food ends up a blend of indistinguishable flavors. The water chestnut tastes like the beef and broccoli tastes like the pork fried rice tastes like the fortune cookie. Itís all tasty, in that salt-and-soy-sauce, rice-and-crab-Rangoon way, but itís a challenge to find the individual flavors. But at Yanís Best Place, what can be said of the faces can also be said of the flavors: each ingredient stands out and combines with its plate-mates to create something distinct and familiar. Strips of ginger the size of snap peas give punch to the jumbo shrimp and scallions ($10.95), and the scallions keep their onion kick. In the beef with green peppers and black-bean sauce ($7.95), the beef is stripped thin and the peppers chopped into chunks; the black-bean sauce belts it all together without robbing either ingredient of its essential flavor. Handfuls of fresh vegetables come with the mixed-vegetable lo mein ($4.95): together with a mound of stir-fried egg noodles, the water chestnuts, broccoli, pea pods, and those miniature corns all have a crisp, crunchy snap. Each flavor holds its own because nothingís diced into unidentifiable bits; all the ingredients are bite-size or bigger. And everything in the generous portions feels fresh.
The multi-page menu offers well over 100 choices, and two girls sitting in the corner discuss tough decisions. " Have you been here before? " asks one. " A couple times, " responds the other, " but not for a while. " Moments later Yan emerges from the back. " Ah, " says Yan, pausing by their table. " Nice to see you again. "
Yanís Best Place, located at 52 Beach Street, in Boston, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Call (617) 338-6223.