I think GQ food writer Alan Richman put it best when he described “dive” restaurants as dressed-down bistros. Bistros are endearing, with their typically small spaces and evocation of clean, quick French dining. Dives are similarly small, not always clean and that extra step removed from orderly or chain-like. What they usually have over bistros is a troop of familial cooks who have it in their blood and culture to whip up authentic, traditional dishes — for cheap.
Such is the advantage of the Yen Ching Chinese joint on 8512 E. Washington St., which sits next to an H&R Block on a street with a few run-down buildings. The setup is authentic enough, though dim.
A smiley Chinese gentleman with dark-rimmed glasses and a stooping stance greeted me. He ushered me into a rectangular room with traditional Chinese motifs: lanterns with black script and red tassels hang from the ceiling; golden dragons are inlaid in the space’s structure.
Paper Chinese zodiac placemats are sandwiched between each table’s glass and faded mustard tablecloths. The place feels like dining at a family member’s home — the one who can cook, hopefully.
Indeed, the takeout menu prods you like a garrulous uncle: “The restaurant is featuring The Northern Peking & Szechwan Style Dishes.” “Cocktails Available.” Lunch specials, says a small yellow tabletop sitter, are all under $5, and include a fried wonton, crabmeat rangoon, fried rice and hot and sour or egg drop soup. (“You look a little skinny!” the cook might say.)
I got the sharing-sized portion of the slightly spicy Szechwan chicken ($7.50). The fried orange chicken swam with some peas, translucent onions and carrots in a sea of orange oil. The finished product sat heavy in the stomach.
The beef lo-mein ($7.75) was also heavy. It stained the sides and top of the archetypal takeout box with dark grease. The thick, yellow-brown noodles were slippery, tasty but heavy. The beef was plentiful.
Don’t let people tell you that the hot & sour soup ($2.95 for a small order) is out of this world. A person on AOL’s CityGuide had posted a message about Yen Ching’s hot & sour soup, touting it as good as what her husband had in China.
The soup doesn’t fall prey to the sweet, gooey class of hot & sour gone wrong. Actually, it’s spicy and just thick enough. But it’s missing something — perhaps the “sliced shrimps” promised in the description. I tried to find them, but they successfully evaded me.
Redemption came wrapped as a moo shu pork pancake ($8.50). The appropriately thin flour pancake housed some delicately flavored strips of pork, bean sprouts, carrots and other goodies whose juices ran thankfully clear at the bottom of the box. Accompanying hoisin sauce and shaved chives are offered separately for emphasis.
There were a few dishes my stomach pouch wouldn’t budge to try, and still more that were promising but unavailable, like the seasonal whole fish braised with soy sauce, ginger root and green onion. Soon, the small man in front assured me.
If Yen Ching’s food is hit-or-miss — and even the “miss” isn’t bad, just greasy — the prices are right on the money. Where else can you get a deluxe dinner with three family-sized entrees, soup, steamed rice, a generous appetizer platter and hot tea for $38? If you’re starving, broke or both, Yen Ching is a godsend. If you’re picky, it’s decent.