It would be easy to drive by Yao’s Diner in Orange without a second glance. Housed at the end of a small shopping plaza, the restaurant which features authentic Chinese cuisine is unassuming on the outside and equally unpresumptuous within but from the time you step into the foyer you get a sense that this eatery is something different.
The first restaurant by Guangmin Yao and his wife Xuan Chen, Yao’s occupies the space that was Lisiano’s Italian restaurant for thirty years. Silent partners Charles Eaton and his wife are proprietors of the popular Q’s in Norwalk. The pair are world travelers with a passion for authentic East Asian cuisines.
The restaurant’s interior reminded me very much of the old-school Chinese restaurants I frequented in Chinatown, growing up in New York City where the focus was less on décor and more on the cuisine. Attention at Yao’s Diner is on cooking the tastiest, most authentic food possible--the restaurant opened in January, following an extensive renovation to outfit the kitchen for the tools of Chef Yao’s trade.
Yao is from Henan in the Central part of China but trained extensively in Szechuan cooking, apprenticing under thirty-year veteran chef Meida Liu a noted Chengdu Szechuan chef who worked at Manhattan’s Han Dynasty.
The result is a menu that features both recognizable American Chinese classics like General Tso’s Chicken or Shrimp and various Fried Rice dishes as well dishes that represent the two cultures in which Chef Yao cooks. Many of these will be new introductions to even the most sophisticated American diner like Cumin Beef or Lamb. Cooking with cumin is unusual in Chinese cuisine except in Yao’s native Henan.
“Szechuan food is focused on spicy flavor,” said Jenny Yao, Chef Yao’s daughter who helps manage the restaurant. “Henan cuisine also called Yu cuisine, focuses more on salty flavors and is moderate, light, and elegant in flavor.”
We started the meal with Dan Dan Noodle (above), a cold, almost spaghetti like noodle tossed in a light spicy sauce and topped with minced, spiced pork. Next we went on to the crispy, spicy, tofu—deep-fried squares of soy bean curd tossed in a spicy sauce. Crispy spicy chicken, the meat-based version of this dish is equally as good. As with all Yao’s deep fried dishes, these were made with a deft hand without any hint of greasiness.
One of the most interesting dishes was up next: corn niblets tossed in duck egg yolk and then fried. The result was a sweet, rich and creamy side dish that provided a mild counterpoint to the many spicy dishes on the menu.
The menu at Yao’s also features an extensive offering of dumplings — another of Yao’s specialties. We tried the Pan-Fried Egg and Chive Dumpling, which was actually a crispy turnover stuffed with scrambled eggs and chives. Oversized enough to split between two people these turnovers are light and crispy despite being deep-fried.
Because hot chilies are the foundation for Szechuan cuisine and Yao’s aims for authenticity, patrons are offered mild, medium or spicy options for dishes—similar to many Thai or Indian restaurants. Even though heat is definitely on this menu Chef Yao’s dishes balance high Scoville level spice with excellent flavor as in the Braised Beef with Sour Cabbage and noodles—a menu specialty featuring the cellophane or bean thread noodles more common in South East Asian cooking.
For diners who aren’t into hot peppers there are plenty of other delectable options. The Walnut Shrimp with mayonnaise features delicately fried shrimp and whole walnuts in a creamy, slightly sweet white sauce and most of the rice and noodle dishes on the menu are not spicy at all.
Although small, even Yao’s dessert lineup features authentic recipes that one would be hard pressed to find outside of Chinatown. We wrapped up our meal with Jian Dui, a classic dessert made from glutinous rice flour balls rolled in sesame seeds and deep-fried. Commonly stuffed with sweet red bean paste the Yao’s serves another popular, but lesser known version of Jian Dui stuffed with sweet potato.
The dessert menu is rounded out with a Glutinous Rice Ball with Sweet Wine Sauce and Eight-Treasure Rice Cake which features sweetened glutinous rice with eight dried fruits, sweetened beans and nuts. The number eight is considered lucky in China and this is a popular holiday or special occasion confection.
Yao’s Diner is open seven days a week. Monday through Saturday from 11am to 10pm and Sunday Noon to 9:00pm and offers a $7 weekday lunch special. More at Yaosdinerct.com.