Last week, the owners of Yen Ching, the venerable Chinese restaurant in Orange, sent out the following email to its customers announcing their retirement.
To Our Dear Customers and Friends:
After 39 years of serving the community, Yen Ching Restaurant in Orange will be closing its doors after the holiday season. As a pioneer of Mandarin and Szechwan cuisine in Orange County and one of the first of its kind in Southern California upon opening its doors on New Year’s Eve in 1979, Yen Ching became a part of the fabric of Orange County, as well as a steadfast tradition in the lives of many patrons who frequented the restaurant through the years. Families have celebrated births, weddings, graduations, and countless joyous events with us over nearly four decades. We’ve had the privilege of knowing generations of Orange County families—parents, grandparents, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and even those who’ve moved away and remembered to return for a nostalgic meal. We are so grateful that you have invited us into your lives and allowed us to be a part of your family traditions for almost 40 years.
Though the decision to close was a difficult one, we have decided that the time for retirement has come and we look forward to spending time with our family and grandchildren. Please call us at (714) 997-3300 to make a reservation or stop by 574 S. Glassell St. in Orange one last time to say goodbye (you know the red sloped roof next to the big historic tree).
We thank you for your business over the years and for sharing your special moments with us—it truly has been our pleasure to serve you.
Ben Tzou, Ruby Tzou and Charles Zhang
Founders and Co-owners
Yen Ching Restaurant
And on that Friday night, it seemed as though every one of Yen Ching’s customers heeded the invitation to stop by “one last time.” It was packed. The lobby area was standing room only, and the wait, if you didn’t call ahead for a reservation, was nearly an hour long. I realized quickly I was probably the only person in attendance who hadn’t been there before.
Though it was my first time, I knew all about Yen Ching from my friend Otina Monary, a longtime Orange resident and a loyal Yen Ching customer. She sang its praises for years and told me stories of its Flaming Pineapple Chicken. And when she found out about its impending closure, she shared with me that when she discovered Yen Ching decades ago, it immediately reminded her of the Chinese restaurants she and her siblings were taken to for birthday celebrations in her native Seattle.
“It was like walking back in time: Waiters in tuxes, starched tablecloths and napkins, all sorts of tasty dishes served family style, many hot pots of tea, and chopsticks! We were kids again. From then on, Yen Ching became the only Chinese restaurant for our family,” she said.
It could be said that every neighborhood in America has a Yen Ching. And it has been argued by authors such as Jennifer 8. Lee, who wrote The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, that restaurants like it have made Chinese food all-American. But as I saw the outpouring of support from the throngs of people arriving that night, it occurred to me that Yen Ching meant more to this neighborhood than the local Chinese takeout. It has been so fully assimilated and become part of the everyday lives of the community, I posit that if you ever hear anyone in Orange complaining about the encroachment of foreign cultures into America, they would not be talking about this place.
I thought about how Yen Ching was more beloved than Wong’s in Garden Grove ever was. Wong’s, which started in 1972 serving the same kind of American-style Chinese, closed quietly in 2011 without much fanfare.
When I was finally seated, I also became more and more aware that, aside from the servers, I was the only Asian in the entire restaurant. No one used chopsticks, nor were any supplied. But as I ate the foil-wrapped chicken, the ultra-tender Mongolian beef and the sizzling rice soup—a bowl that had more chicken, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and canned mushrooms than broth—I realized Yen Ching’s food was also the kind of Chinese food I grew up with in 1980s Fullerton. Before Sam Woo and its ilk arrived, this was what was available. And if you come before they close for good on New Year’s Day, you can reminisce at Yen Ching and enjoy all the familiar old-school Chinese American dishes you also probably came of age with.
As for Otina, she told me she has already secured her reservation for Christmas Day—no doubt to order the Flaming Pineapple Chicken one final time.
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.