Three summers ago I flew to Los Angeles for a quick visit with my good friend Annette. We spent most of the day cruising the PCH, catching rays on the beach and by sunset we’d worked up a pair of ferocious appetites. Like myself, she too is a foodie, but not nearly as gluttonous and compulsive about gastronomy as I am. She’s the type of health-conscious foodie that can turn down a slice of greasy NY pizza and find equal satisfaction in one of those cauliflower crust alternatives. Me, never. if I’m allowing myself pizza, I’m indulging in the guilt of it all. Nonetheless, she’s never disappointed me when it comes to finding good eats, so I know I can always count on her to take me somewhere good.
“You like Chinese right?” she asked. She must have mistaken me for someone else, because there isn’t much of anything that I enjoy more than Chinese. I pressed my palms together and shook my head ‘yes’, like a little kid who’d just been asked if she wanted to skip school and go to Disneyland. So we made our way downtown to a place she claimed was the best Chinese restaurant in all of Los Angeles. I took that as, this wasn’t going to be just any ol’ lunch. I had a feeling I was in for a real treat.
So this restaurant is called Yang Chow, it’s located in the heart of the Chinatown district. There is nothing special about it’s exterior, and it blends in with most of the other Asian eateries littered along Broadway Street. The only noticeable difference was that Yang Chow had about 15-20 people standing around outside its front door. As we got out of the car, Annette informed me that this place was a mainstay not just for locals, but tourist and LA’s Asian community.
I assumed the people standing around outside must have dined already and were just chatting over a smoke.We made our way around them and headed inside. To my surprise, there were another 15 or so people clogged into a small space by the front door. Being 6” tall I was able to scan the whole dining room over most of the heads in front of me. There wasn’t an empty table or chair in sight. Annette, seemingly unsurprised by the congestion, squeezed her way through the crowd up to the hostess stand. “Table for two please, no reservation,” she said. The woman asked for our name and then ushered us to make our way back outside to the “waiting area” where the people I’d thought were departing, apparently hadn’t even been seated yet. Annette ensured me that the 30 minute wait would be well worth it once I tasted their “slippery shrimp.”
The name alone made the corners of my mouth turn upwards and my eyes widen. “What’s slippery shrimp?” I asked with burning curiosity. Annette peered into the window and pointed to the closest table in view. “That right there is slippery shrimp. And if you notice, that same dish is at every single table. It’s the most popular item on the menu.” Well, she wasn’t exaggerating. When the host finally came outside to get us, I glanced around the entire dining room as we walked to our table—everyone was eating this infamous dish.
We obviously agreed to order the slippery shrimp, and I elected to try their other popular dish–kung pao squid–as well as their house green beans. The waiter brought us a pot of hot tea and then rushed back to the kitchen to help with the load of plates waiting to be delivered to their tables. All we could do was wait. Annette sparked up a conversation during that time but to be completely honest, I wasn’t listening to a word she said. Instead, I was staring just over her shoulder at the tables behind her, watching people stick forkfuls of slipper shrimp into their mouths with the most delightful expressions. My palms moistened, and I tapped my foot on the floor…waiting. 10 minutes felt like 30 and every time a waiter appeared from the back with a stack of hot plates I practically pleaded with God that they would hit our table. Moments later, my prayers were answered.
Ok…first, let’s talk about the portions. The folks in the kitchen at Yang Chow’s sure ain’t stingy. Considering what I know now about the Slippery Shrimp, (they serve about 250-300 orders of that dish alone) its a wonder they don’t run out of food before closing time. Each plate was steaming hot and uniquely aromatic. I had to press my lips together tightly to keep from drooling on myself as the waiter arranged the plates on the table in front of us. The Kung Pao squid, fried rice and green beans all looked delicious, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the Slippery Shrimp—as if it was the most beautiful man in the room.
Annette and I smiled at each other with mutual excitement. I flung my napkin into my lap, scooped a little bit of everything onto my plate, then braced for impact.
I’ll try to be as undramatic as possible because I’m sure you’re sick of reading and wanna know the verdict. Ok, the green beans we’re sautéed with a tad of soy sauce and minced pork. Simple, not overpowering—but the minced pork & garlic gave it a unique flavor that elevated it from a plate of regular ass green beans to something worth remaking once I got home. Those were yummy. The Kung Pao squid was a hit too! It had the perfect intensity of spice, a very subtle sweetness to the sauce that complimented the sautéed squid, dried chiles, peanuts and scallions. They offer Kung Pao chicken, shrimp and veggie options too if you aren’t a fan of squid.
Now, let’s talk about the star of the show. As I said, I’m a Chinese/Sichuan/mandarin connoisseur, and this shrimp dish was unlike anything I’d ever encountered flavor wise. Sure, I’ve had all kinds of fried shrimp tossed in a tangy-sweet type of sauce, but what was happening in my mouth this time was an erotic experience I’d never quite had. The shrimp themselves were lightly fried with a delicate batter coating; as if they were dipped in egg yolk, then tossed around in a mixture of cornstarch and flour. They were fried to perfection, visibly golden brown under the orange/red-ish tint of the the sauce that coated them. I wanted to make my own predictions about what the sauce consisted of just for the fun of it. And from what the manager was willing to divulge…It consists of a mixture of minced garlic, red chili flakes, ketchup and honey. He never actually said these were the ingredients, but when I started guessing out loud, he smiled and nodded whenever I got one right. There were clearly some other ingredients in there that I could detect but not identify. And once he learned that I cooked for a living he stopped sharing. And to be honest I had to respect that. If I had a sauce that was responsible for nearly 300 orders a day on a single dish, I’d certainly keep its recipe under-wraps too.
Everything was so good that even after my stomach reached maximum expansion, I contemplated about how gluttonous it would be to order another plate of Slippery Shrimp to-go, even though the plates in front of us still had enough food for two nights of leftovers. “This is out of this world Annette, thank you for bringing me!” I felt compelled to express my immense gratitude right in that moment, rather than wait til we finished. She needed to know that she introduced me to something really special, and that I cherished the moment. Needless to say I would dream about the time me and Yang Chow could meet again, which felt like forever since I live in Atlanta. On more than one occasion I would search the #YangChow hashtag on instagram just to torture myself, envying the people in the pictures enjoying my new favorite thing without me. But once I became a corporate flight attendant two years later, my job would take me to LA more than once a year like before. Thank God.
The second my pilots told me we were making a quick stop at LAX last week, I immediately looked at the clock and tried to calculate whether or not I’d have enough time to drive 40 min through LA’s ungodly traffic to get my slippery shrimp fix, and drive another 40 min back before we were set to leave. If it could be done, I was making that trek. Hell, I’d swallow my pride and jump on the city bus if the FBO didn’t have a crew car available for me to use. By any means when I’m in LA, I’m at Yang Chow. Next time you are in the city, make it your business to visit. If you’re a local and haven’t been yet, shame on you.