OC Weekly’s Restaurant Critic Visits Yen Ching for the First (and Possibly Last) Time

Photo by Edwin Goei

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.

Warmest wishes,

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.

Photo by Edwin Goei

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.

Photo by Edwin Goei

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.

Photo by Edwin Goei

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.

6 Replies to “OC Weekly’s Restaurant Critic Visits Yen Ching for the First (and Possibly Last) Time”

  1. Thank you for writing this piece and for stopping by! I am the daughter of the owners and to have seen the outpouring of support from the community the past few days has been truly incredible. I have only now begun to realize what my parents created with the opening of our restaurant – more than just a place to eat, they created a gathering place for families and a foundation for so many memories. We’re truly grateful to everyone who’s supported us over the past (nearly) four decades!

  2. Thank you so much for getting straight to the heart of Yen Ching. As the eldest daughter of the owners, Ben and Ruby, I’ve witnessed the labor of love that is demanded of being not only a restaurant owner as an immigrant, but one that must struggle to be relevant in the age of Yelp, self-made food critics, and customers who consider dining out a moonlighting gig. The comments I’ve been reading on Yen Ching’s Facebook page have moved us beyond measure. And as you read each customer’s personal memory and connection to the restaurant, you realize that it’s more than just the food that makes Yen Ching special. It’s the feeling. The traditions and seasons of people’s lives that were marked by a meal together in the A-framed restaurant with humble service and sincerity. I think of that scene in Ratatouille when Ego walks into his mother’s kitchen when he bites into the ratatouille with tears welling up in his eyes. You just feel like you’ve stepped back in time and come home. I grew up begging for a peanut butter sandwich in my lunchbox because I was bullied, yet ironically, my parents were quietly redefining immigrant food in Orange County and making things easier for kids like myself to bring their fried rice and sushi to school without embarrassment. I’m so proud of my parents and grateful beyond measure for the community that has embraced them.

  3. The first time my wife and I went to Yen Ching in the 1980s we drove up and after looking at the outside of the restaurant, I did not want to go in. My wife talked me into it and I was glad she did. That first night Ben helped with our service and was very attentive. We ending up going to Yen Ching regularly, our two sons loved it, and I had a number of office parties there. It was always a joy to see Ben at the front desk. The sizzling rice soup was the best I have ever had at any Chinese restaurant as were the pot stickers when they were freshly cooked. In the early years, the deep fried apples were served hot for dessert but in later years they were unfortunately served cold. I have had the flaming pineapple several times (a pre-order) that the reviewer mentioned. As the Chinese idiom says, “No morning sun lasts a whole day, all good things must come to an end.

  4. My wife and I have been going to Yen Ching since 1987, shortly after we moved to California from New Orleans. For our 1st year here, we could walk to the restaurant; however, after we moved to Irvine, we continued to come semi-regularly, primarily for special occasions: New Years, birthdays, what-have-you. When we raised our two daughters we introduced them to the restaurant and they grew up to adulthood loving the restaurant’s sizzling-rice soup, and other dishes. For “One Last Time” we went there Friday night, a little too late, and unfortunately the food ran out. But, we went right back to it on Christmas day and – success! I have to say that the food this last time was as good as I remember it from our 1st time. Amazingly, it was just like the early days with so many people there, lined up in the hallway where the buddha statue used to be. My youngest daughter, now a young adult, is a non-dairy vegetarian, but she had to have the sizzling-rice soup, and she loved it as much as ever. We took more home and enjoyed it and the rest of our big Xmas day lunch all over again for dinner. We love Yen Ching and its owners and servers. We wish much success and happiness in retirement for the Tzou’s and in new ventures for the staff. Thank you for all the good meals and happy times over the years.

  5. Does anyone remember the name of the smorgasbord restaurant that was there before Yen Ching?
    I went there as kid but can’t remember the name.

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