79 Clinton Street, New York, 10002 (map); 212-253-2527; yunnankitchen.com
Service: Excellent and attentive. Very friendly.
Setting: Low key early on, a little loud as the night progresses. Beautiful artifacts on exposed brick, wooden furniture.
Must-Haves: Crispy Chicken, King Trumpet Mushrooms, Braised Beef Rolls, Fried Pork Belly
Cost: Small plates are $5 to $13, and you'll need about three per person for a meal.
When the strips of fried pork belly first arrive at your table, the draw is immediate, animal. You dip a blistered corner into a little pile of ground spices, then pop them into your mouth in a steady stream, the fiery heat of red chilies slowly building up with each crisp, fatty bite. Fried mint leaves, translucent green and aromatic, serve as a pause, freeing you to consider whether that's star anise, fennel, or perhaps a bit of both you taste in there with the cumin and Sichuan peppercorn.
Perhaps you might also stop and think to yourself, I'm eating a $10 Chinese appetizer from a region of China heretofore unknown in the airport food court, served on a clean white plate by a server (also white) who speaks polite English with a good barrel-drawn rosé on the side. What the heck's happened to Chinese food in New York?
Yunnan Kitchen is another of the slew of recent regional Asian eateries opening in the city that show a conscious effort to divorce themselves from the image of Asian food as either unrefined or necessarily inexpensive.
It's appropriate that Yunnan Kitchen is close neighbors with the Sichuan-inflected Mission Chinese Food on the Lower East Side, as the two provinces neighbor each other in China. Yunnanese cuisine shares some of the same flavors—that cumin, chili, and Sichuan pepper spice blend, for instance—and Muslim-influenced ingredients from the Silk Road spice trade.
But it's Yunnan's neighbors to the South—Vietnam and Laos—that are the cause for most interest here. Bitter herbal flavors show up in dishes like the Chrysanthemum Leaf Salad ($7), which smells like geraniums but tastes like bitter arugula coated with a tahini-like sesame dressing. A salad of Tofu Ribbons ($8) combines Chinese-style tofu skin with Laotian salad ingredients—shallots, cilantro, mint, and hot chilies—in a vinaigrette that comes close to hitting the mark but doesn't quite capture the intense flavors you'll find at, say, Pok Pok, Andy Ricker's Laotian-inflected restaurant on the Atlantic Waterfront in Brooklyn.
Peer into the open kitchen and you won't see Chinese chefs toiling over rapid-fire wok orders. Rather you'll see beareded, bandana'd Brooklyn types tossing salads, bending over plates, tending the grill, and occasionally, tossing some excellent King Trumpet Mushrooms ($10) in the wok. The latter arrive at your table smelling of smoke, soy, and bitter sawtooth herb, the salty bite of Chinese ham weaving through the slick slices of mushroom.
I'm not sure whether it's the Southeast Asian influence at work, or perhaps the hand of Chef Travis Post, bringing some of his Franny's and Bklyn Larder sensibilities to the kitchen, but Yunnan Kitchen's food is lighter and fresher than any Chinese regional cuisine I've thus been exposed to.
Paper thin slices of tender Braised Beef Rolls ($10) wrapped around cucumbers and mint leaves come glazed with a sweet and savory sauce and a shower or fried garlic. It's instantly reminiscent of Vietnamese pho bo, but far, far more refreshing. Light braised beef? Who'd have thought?
Crispy Whole Shrimp ($13) look familiar as they arrive on the table—you've had whole, shell-on, butterflied salt and pepper shrimp at countless Chinatown restaurants—but the squeeze of lime and aroma of fried kaffir lime leaf permeating the dish transports it to another region of the world entirely.
There's never any point in a meal at Yunnan Kitchen that you'd question the sincere passion that owner Erika Chou has put into the space—the walls are decorated with artifacts from her and Post's travels through Yunnan, and the tea selection is meticulous —but there are times when you wonder if execution may have lost something in its cross-seas transportation.
Wide Rice Noodles ($10) served cold and topped with pork, herbs, peanuts, and chilies sounds like a cross-cultural stroke of genius—dan dan noodles through a Vietnamese lens—but are marred by mushy texture and a sauce that leaves you wishing it were either more Sichuan or more Vietnamese. It's lost in a bland netherworld between the two.
Similarly, Shredded Chicken ($12), served cold on a too-thick and too-bland paste of taro comes drizzled with a sauce that advertises tamarind, but taste only of the same spice blend you find on the fried pork. Once the chicken was tender and moist, while the other time it was overcooked to the texture of compressed cotton.
Chinese Sausage Fried Rice ($13) made with seasonal mushrooms (Yunnan is the mushroom capitol of China, if not the world), and sweet cured Chinese sausage custom-made at Salumeria Biellese is a little greasier and much more expensive than you'd expect. The rice is slick enough it tumbles into individual grains through your chopsticks.
A better combination of mushroom and rice can be found in the Mushroom Rice Cakes, boldly flavored with fermented chilies and bitter Chinese greens (which they pick up from neighborhood vendors). It's the single most filling and comforting dish on the menu, unless you count the Lemongrass Chicken ($11), which is the single most food-court tasting dish they serve, albeit far lighter and fresher. That dish comes with fried croutons of Chinese buns, great for picking up the the thick and sweet chicken and lemongrass-scented juices.
You'll probably be tempted to order a few of the Shao Kao—grilled skewered meats and vegetables eaten as street snacks. You'd be wise to do so—the Crispy Chicken ($7) is some of the juiciest thigh meat I've had anywhere, while the Fingerling Potato & Shishito Peppers ($5) are a vegetarian dish even an avowed meatavore could take a liking to—but be warned that they can get tiring. Every single one of them is flavored with the same spice blend as that crispy bacon.
It's a delicious spice blend, to be sure, but after a while all the dishes begin to start tasting the same. A recent special of fried chicken wings and drumsticks tossed in dry spices made me long for the punchier, juicier, crisper, and, well, cheaper version at Mission Chinese Food.
The comparison between the two restaurants is inevitable. Both are hipster Chinese restaurants in the Lower East Side. Both are presenting flavors that are brand new to New York, but share many of the common themes.
But at heart they are a different experience. Where Mission Chinese is bombastic, Yunnan Kitchen is more subtle and refined. The former speaks to the meat-loving chili-heads in us, while the latter appeals to those with a quiet appreciation for more vegetables (more than half the menu is meat-free).
While Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese captures the wild side of chefs and their late night cravings with only a passing regard to regional authenticity, Erika Chou and Travis Post are attempting to capture and adapt a unique cuisine to a New York audience. Whether that audience is willing to be captured in return is to be seen.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.