Jane Stern: ‘Chinese’ food we used to know at Yangtze Riverside
I grew up eating “Chinese.” Like most people of my generation, this was a cultural ritual that called for no knowledge of the differences of the cuisine of Asian provinces, or any knowledge of what was authentic or “Chinese-American.” My generation (for the most part) had never heard of Hunan or Szechuan. All we needed to know was what dish from column A or column B we wanted. We knew it would come with an egg roll, a bowl of egg drop soup and pork fried rice. We would get two fortune cookies at the end of the meal. We read the fortunes to each other. It was heaven.
To millennials this must seem like the height of ridiculousness. How could we be so limited? What about Thai or Vietnamese? What about Asian fusion, Pacific Rim and other cutting-edge Eastern cuisines? Sometimes minimalism is bliss, and eating “Chinese” was a perfect example. You can’t miss what you don’t know.
1074 E. Putnam Ave., Greenwich
It wasn’t too long ago when I became nostalgic for the quasi-Cantonese food of my youth. Where was chicken chow mein, shrimp in lobster sauce and/or even chop suey? What happened to the bowl of crisp, fried noodles that came with sweet orange duck sauce before the meal? What was out there for those of us who still can’t say pho or bahn mi properly?
I would like to say that I went on a long, extensive hunt for such a place, but there was no need. For years I have stopped at the blandest storefront on the rather swanky road that leads to the town of Greenwich. To be honest, I don’t think I ever knew the name of the place. Alone or with friends I’d simply say, “Let’s stop for Chinese.” So far, the politically correct police have not arrested me.
I would like to comment on the decor of Yangtze Riverside, but there isn’t any. There are a few knickknacks in the front window under the big neon sign. Inside, there is a soda machine, an improvised wooden bench to sit on while your food is being cooked (it is takeout only) and a couple of “Oriental” statuettes, along with a small stack of almond cookies. Believe me, no one was hired to “stage” this place. But in its stark, unpretentious beauty it is a mother lode of great traditional Chinese-American food. Everything you have missed is still on the menu and is really good. The tastes are exactly as you recall.
I wanted to order everything, and with such low prices I probably could have afforded it. Classicist that I am, I stuck to the basics: chicken chow mein; wonton soup; shrimp with lobster sauce; egg drop soup; fried rice and egg rolls (with a few packets of duck sauce). My heart soared as I read the familiar words “sub gum,” “moo shu” and “Pu Pu Platter” on the menu.
Once home I decanted the food from the take-out containers. Everything was accounted for: packets of soy sauce, the cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies, the egg rolls tucked away in their wax-paper envelopes.
It is said that smell is the most significant of the five senses, having the power to transport you back in time. The steam wafting off the chicken chow mein was like entering a time capsule; it looked just as I remembered: nice hunks of white meat chicken on top of limp and tender bean sprouts, studded with micro bits of cabbage and carrot. The bed of white rice is Asian comfort food. The shrimp in lobster sauce was delicious and also a bit surprising. When the price for a shrimp dish is low, I suspect I am going to get subpar shrimp. Not here. Again the recipe followed the classic old-school standards, and the shrimp were big, bright beauties.
As a restaurant critic, I don’t think I have ever shied away from describing food, but in this case I will. Regarding the egg drop soup, the wonton soup, the egg rolls, the fried rice, the crispy noodles, all I need to say is they taste exactly as you remember them tasting from the good old days. If you are under 30, please go there at least as an anthropology project to see what the culinary world was like pre-Asian fusion.
One of the best things about Yangtze Riverside are the people who work there. You can peek through the order window and see the chef intensely cooking at his huge blackened wok. All the people you deal with behind the counter are polite, gracious and eager to please. Isn’t it funny how in this least-fancy, inexpensive, plainest-looking place on the Gold Coast, the food and service exceed much of what I have eaten in Greenwich for a small fortune.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, coauthored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern. Join her each week as she travels Fairfield County finding a great meal in unexpected places for $20 or less.