Yan’s Best Place
52 Beach Street, Boston
Open daily, 11 a.m.–2 a.m.
Beer and wine
No valet parking
Access up a few steps from sidewalk level
I’ve been eating in Boston’s Chinatown for decades, and the drill for Anglos who think we are pretty cool with Chinese food hasn’t changed. You go into a storefront restaurant with maybe 12 tables, and you look at the endless menu, and you look at the Chinese specials written on the walls, and you try to figure out what might be good here. Yan’s could be a chow foon palace, a Taiwan place, a Hong Kong seafood specialist, or even one of those weird-but-true holdouts where you can get pu-pu platters, chow mein, and chop suey made as though they were real cuisine. The English menu says it has Hong Kong, Cantonese, and Szechuan food. This would be like walking into an American restaurant in Hong Kong and reading that it specializes in New York City, Florida, and New Mexico food. There are five major regional cuisines in China, and at least twice as many unusual pockets of ethnic specialties. Yan’s could be Boston’s first Hakka restaurant, or the fourth, and I have no more clue about that from the English menu than my waiter has a clue, by looking at me, that I can eat a whole bowl of rice with chopsticks. I could ask the waiter what’s good, but he doesn’t know that my definition of good includes sea cucumber but not steamed pork. I could ask the waiter what the dishes written on the wall are. I actually did that. He said, "That’s the Cantonese stuff."
Well, that’s one of the big five.
But of course, it’s actually the most inclusive of the big five, and includes sub-regional variants: chow chau cooking, Hakka, classic Guangdong, Hong Kong style, Macao style, Hainanese, who knows? People who can read Chinese characters, maybe. On the English menu, we thought all the appetizers looked like tourist food, so we ordered house-special seafood soup ($7.95 small/$17.95 large) — I mean, it says "house special," right? Catch as catch can, we ordered away: scallops with string bean and satay sauce ($10.95) — we saw one on another table. Fried squid with green chives ($9.50) — there is a special menu section of seven dishes with green chives and seven more with yellow chives. Clearly a specialty of the chef. I’ve had yellow chives — they are the relatively bland but subtle version of Chinese garlic leeks. Pan-fried bean curd with eight delights hot pot ($8.50) — I like hot pots and maybe sea cucumber is one of the eight delights. Braised-duck Buddha’s delight ($12.95) — Buddha’s delight is always a vegetarian dish, so this I want to see. I can’t tell you if this is the best food Yan’s has. It was the best an informed Anglo could make of the menu, and it worked out to a very fine meal.
The smaller size of the seafood soup was two bowls for each of four people, and it was a delicious and rich combination of chopped scallops, conch, real crabmeat, tiny rock shrimp, the yellow chives, and quite a lot of chopped fish maw for thickener. The effect is subtle and delicious in what I would call a classic Cantonese style.
The green-garlic chives are kept crunchy in a thin sauce with fresh squid scored to form "dragon scales." Again, the effect is fresh, simple, and Cantonese. The scallops are relatively scarce among many beans, in a satay sauce that is mostly garlic, somewhat peppery. Again, the predominant flavor is subtle seafood, and again, I would call the style Cantonese. The hot pot I would call a winter specialty. It’s full of shrimp, squid, and scallops as well, but with plenty of black and straw mushrooms, gluten in rolled sheets, a few noodles, fried cubes of tofu, and what might be cooked lettuce or a very green and leafy kind of Chinese cabbage. No sea cucumber.
As for braised-duck Buddha’s delight, it’s a lot like the better sort of vegetarian Buddha’s delight, but poured over slices of braised duck, mostly boneless and reasonably lean. The amazing vegetable is large sheets of wood ears, almost cylinders, along with carrots, pea pods, Chinese broccoli (like rabe but much sweeter), reconstituted dried day-lily buds, straw mushrooms, and fresh bamboo shoots. The name is a puzzle. First of all, the word for Buddha in Chinese is also the word for Buddhist monk, so the original dish is based on strictly vegetarian temple cuisine. (There is a pot of mixed meats called "Buddha Jumps the Wall.") So I think the restaurant thought that braised-duck Buddha’s delight would describe the plethora of vegetables over the duck better than "braised duck with vegetables."
Yan’s features only three wines ($4/glass) — a red merlot, a white chardonnay, which might work with this food, and a blush zinfandel, which might work even better. But you are probably better off with one of the five beers, and why not Tsingtao ($3.50), the somewhat malty pilsner imported from China. Dessert possibilities are a dozen flavors of "tapioca pearls desserts" ($3.95). These are more like smoothies than "bubble tea," but have the same marble-sized tapioca balls and the magnum-caliber straw to suck them up. The winner of our flight was taro, which sounds a little starchy, but makes a vivid purple smoothie with a kind of malted-milk effect. Mango was true to the fruit flavor, but extremely sweet. Watermelon was also a pretty accurate flavor, but thin, like watermelon juice.
Service at Yan’s is somewhat friendlier than the norm. I actually could have pumped the waiter for some of the Chinese wall specials, and will next time. You should, too, although we didn’t hit a weak platter with the Cantonese seafood theme we stumbled onto. Yan’s is also a somewhat nicer space than the Beach Street storefronts of yore. The floor is modern quarry tile, and most tables are white laminate bound with blond oak. There is wall art of tropical fish and some amusing commercial souvenirs, such as a couple of Tsingtao paper lanterns.
I understand the logic of two menus — one has everything the Anglo foot traffic could possibly want to eat; the other tells literate Chinese-American customers what’s really good. The English menu eventually mentions enough Cantonese seafood for me to get the idea (if that actually is the idea!), and now you, too, have that idea. It wouldn’t be especially risky to sneak a page of "market specials" into the English menu — tourists would still see their egg rolls and spareribs, and some Anglos could read the code and order appropriately. Over time in Chinatown, some of the more authentic restaurants have connected with Anglo fans — the lamented Carl’s Pagoda was legendary. But Carl’s had an even more unusual menu policy. There was a printed menu, possibly two or three copies of it at times. But you had to ask for it, and if you did, you marked yourself as a fool. Your server would approach the table and say, "What would you like?" The correct response was, "What do you have?" The answer would be a list of seafood and a few meats, and then there would be a discussion about how to make these things, and some would come with black beans and some with ginger and scallion. There was a fascinating tomato soup, a wonderful dish of shrimp and scrambled eggs, and "Carl’s Special Steak," which I ordered once to be polite and never had again. It was probably possible to order fried rice at Carl’s, and for all I know, it might have been brilliant. But I would never take the risk that Carl would remember and indicate to my servers not to mention the clams with black-bean sauce some night when they were especially good.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com