For a place that makes only one dish, the hype for Yang’s Braised Chicken Rice was deafening. Word that the restaurant—the first U.S. outpost of a Chinese chain with 6,000 locations in Asia and Australia—was opening in Tustin spread like juicy gossip among OC’s Chinese community and the food press.
And when it opened to the public, what ensued can either be called a marketing success or a logistical fustercluck. There were reports of two-hour wait times that may or may not have included how long it took for the meal to be delivered. And the restaurant was routinely running out of food. Yes, that’s right. Although Yang’s sells only one dish (clay-pot chicken), it was apparently limiting itself to making only a fixed number of bowls per day. If you came after that last bowl was sold, the staff wouldn’t even let you in the building.
Was the limited supply a deliberate marketing ploy? Or was Yang’s the kind of place that would rather risk a few angry customers than sacrifice quality over quantity? I was going to find out, even it took several attempts. Besides, it wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve seen it all before. In 2009, I chased the Kogi truck all over OC as the cops chased it out. Three years ago, I waited four hours for a seat at the new Din Tai Fung at South Coast Plaza. And two years ago, after hearing that the queue at the first Halal Guys in OC was 100 bodies deep, I arrived hours before the doors opened.
I applied the same strategy here. I got to the restaurant an hour before its 11 a.m. opening time expecting to see at least a handful of people. Instead I found no one—not one soul. A sheet of paper taped to the door said, “Sold Out.” After I concluded that the sign was from the night before, and because I was starting to feel a bit silly standing out there by myself, I left.
When I came back at 11:05 a.m., a queue had finally formed outside, but it wasn’t much longer than the line at In-N-Out. An employee was now handing out tickets to the new arrivals. One ticket, she said, entitles you to buy a bowl. And only one ticket is allowed per person. She meant that last part. When a woman in line asked for two additional tickets, the employee told her curtly, “Everyone in your party has to be here to get a ticket.”
She also revealed that only 70 bowls would be served during this lunch period. Another 130 would be available later, when the restaurant opened again for dinner at 5 p.m.
Soon, I was inside. Except for a flat-screen TV that played the restaurant’s origin story on a loop, the dining room was starkly furnished with cold metal chairs and bare wood tables. The sound on the TV was turned off, but I got the gist from the subtitles. A chef named Xiao Lu Yang opened the first Yang’s Braised Chicken Rice in 2011 in Shandong Province using his grandmother’s secret recipe and sauce. And it’s in this bottled sauce the company mass-produced that the chicken both marinates and braises. However, looking into the kitchen, I saw not one bottle of it. What I did see was a crew of three men cooking all the orders individually, each in its own thick iron pot and over its own burner.
When my order was called, my pot was carefully transferred from the stove to my tray with tongs and a dome of rice on top. And since I opted for the “authentic” version instead of the “original” or “spicy,” there were sliced serrano peppers mixed into the gravy along with sliced mushrooms and the morsels of chicken.
I sent a picture of the dish to a friend who’d been to the original in China. Upon seeing my text, he told me it looked different than what he’s had. It’s usually served with the rice on the side, he wrote. And in the Chinese stores, the chicken is bone-in.
“I guess adjustments must be made for us McNuggets eaters!” I replied.
Still, this wasn’t a Panda Express stir-fry. Soupy rather than greasy, monochromatic in looks but umami-packed in flavor, the smells enveloped my head with aromas of Chinese rice wine and ginger. I loved it. And as I dug in to my still-steaming bowl, I noticed the line had tapered off. I realized it was because the door had been shut. Outside, I saw a group of people who were scratching their heads at the same “Sold Out” sign I encountered earlier. As they checked their watches, so did I. It was only noon.
Yang’s Braised Chicken Rice, 13824 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 731-7777; ymyusa.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-8 p.m. Braised chicken rice, $9.99. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.