The truth is that I adore reading cookbooks. And I love to cook. An imaginative process, preparing food satisfies one of my most basic needs -- to create a substantial product from raw materials. Mundane tasks such as chopping and slicing calm me down after a stressful day. Cooking eases writer's block and alleviates boredom.
But I hardly ever do it.
Conflicting schedules prevent my husband and me from knowing exactly when we'll be eating at home. I do shop for food, but too often the milk sours and the vegetables rot before I find time to use them. So now instead of recipes, I collect takeout menus.
I hold these menus so sacred that I have a separate file for them in my office. But lately I haven't felt the need to leaf through that folder much. When I need to dial a number for dinner, I go straight for the dog-eared one on top of the pile: Yeung's Chinese Restaurant.
One night a few months ago, uninspired by our usual choices for takeout Chinese on South Beach, my husband and I tried Yeung's. The restaurant, located on 41st Street near Alton Road, has been open for almost fourteen years, but no one had ever recommended the place, and since the exterior looked a little seedy, we'd always dismissed it as a dive.
A remodeling two years ago made us take sufficient notice to stop by for a menu. We were still leery of the bright red awning, though, from which colored Christmas bulbs dangle. High-back chairs with seat cushions coated in thick clear plastic slipcovers like the kind your legs stuck to at Grandma's house were also daunting. White tablecloths, a clean raised dining room done in tones of black and white, and a pretty fountain alleviated some of our fears. And when we finally tried it, the tasty Mandarin and Cantonese food did the rest.
Yeung's, we discovered, is pack-it-to-go heaven. Seafood hot-and-sour soup, loaded with shrimp, stays steaming hot. Shredded duck with Chinese vegetables and rice noodles is succulent; the duck skin crisp, the strands of noodles separate and slippery. The pancakes that come with moo shu pork are pliable but not soggy, even after the car ride home. Deciding the place was worth a closer look -- i.e., actually sitting down and eating there -- I prayed I hadn't stumbled onto the ultimate contradiction: great takeout, lousy eat-in.
I need not have been concerned. On a recent night when we took my in-laws to Yeung's, nearly everything was perfect. I was disappointed in only two dishes, and then only mildly so. (Both were appetizers. Steamed dumplings had a pungent, meaty flavor but were overcooked and mushy, while their dipping sauce tasted like red wine and could have used some scallion or pepper zing. And an order of oyster rolls -- two deep-fried sticks of tempuralike batter filled with chopped oysters and water chestnuts -- tasted fishy. I'd had this particular starter before and it was terrific, the buttery mollusk complemented by the crunchy, nutty chestnuts and the greaseless coating. Next time I'll ask about the freshness of the oysters; our waitress was very honest about what the kitchen had and didn't have on hand.)
Yeung's provides two menus from which to choose, the old, largely Cantonese one that regulars still like to peruse, and a newer, more pan-Chinese one that recent converts prefer. The upshot is a list of possibilities long enough to make decisions difficult.
In the interest of covering ground, we ordered an appetizer from the original menu, cold sesame noodles. Served at room temperature, the long, winding egg noodles were delicious, covered in a thick, peanut-flavored sesame sauce. Bean sprouts and shreds of carrot provided both color and contrast to the rich dressing.
Soups from the new menu (advertised for two but big enough for four) are varied and appealing, ranging from watercress with pork and tofu to dried scallops with pork and chicken to shredded pork with Chinese vegetables and rice noodles. Wonton soup was a real treat, the light, shrimp-stuffed dumplings floating like ghosts in the chicken broth, with bok choy providing greenery. A velvety chicken-and-corn soup was especially nicely done, egg whites and kernels of corn bobbing among tender bits of breast meat.
Entrees are arranged by choice of main ingredient, but the menus beg to be read carefully. Carnivores, for instance, might want to compromise and order a combination of meat and pasta, such as beef chow fun with black bean sauce, or shredded beef, chicken, and pork with curry-flavored "Shahinese" noodles. I highly recommend the sizzling satay beef pan-fried noodles, which consists of chunks of succulent steak embedded in a nest of fried egg noodles. Served on a hot plate, the noodles were softened by a deep, mellow satay sauce that was similar in flavor to oyster sauce. Baby bok choy decorated the top.
"Emperor's prawns" was an interesting dish, ideal for those with a yen for creamy fare. These shrimp were big and fresh, pink and tightly curled. Surrounding a centerpiece of verdant broccoli florets, the seafood was covered in a creamy sweet-and-sour sauce that tasted like pure mayonnaise, not exactly what we had expected. -- billed garnish of country ham was missing, but a dense sprinkle of ground peanuts provided additional texture.
My mother-in-law might have given me her cookbook, but my father-in-law also gave me something of culinary import: my first Peking duck, at a terrific little place in New York's Chinatown. For old times' sake, we couldn't resist devouring one at Yeung's. The waitress brought out the platter of duck skin, already separated from the meat, and rolled it up in pancakes with scallions, carrots, and plum sauce. Fabulous crunch. She left the extra skin, along with the duck legs, on the table for us to munch while she brought out the best part -- the duck meat wokked with shredded cabbage, carrots, and snow peas. At $28, Yeung's Peking duck is an indulgence, but considering that you get two dishes for the price of one, it's well worth it.
Unable to decide between two black-bean-sauce dishes -- string beans or eggplant -- we asked for a mix of both, and discovered that the kitchen is as skilled as it is accommodating. Though of totally different character, both vegetables were perfectly cooked, the string beans al dente and refreshing, the eggplant succulent and juicy. The sauce was just as savory, the preserved soybeans not too salty and overwhelming.
Orange wedges and fortune cookies were a pleasant way to end the meal, a repast that had my guests grinning with delight. And one that got me thinking. My in-laws have gifted me with a wonderful collection of goodies, not the least of which is their son. I'm sure they'd like a little something in return. Though they'd probably prefer a grandchild, or maybe just a home-cooked meal, I give them Yeung's.