If you’re thinking of Chinese food for dinner tonight, step away from Seamless and head to Yunnan BBQ. Formerly Yunnan Kitchen, the Lower East Side restaurant has refreshed its menu (and interior) to put the spotlight on large, family-style portions of meat, fish and vegetables—all cooked in the style and flavors of the unique southern Chinese region. Because it also borders Vietnam, Laos and Burma, there are a lot of influences at play within the cuisine. Owner Erika Chou calls it the California of China, noting that the region is super-seasonal and bountiful in produce like mushrooms and truffles, wild flowers, Pu’er tea and great coffee. Falling in love with the lighter Yunnan cuisine while working in Beijing for a year, Chou was motivated to show it off in New York.
“There’s a really delicate side to Chinese food—a subtle, nuanced side—that just isn’t represented in America,” Chou tells CH. Though one side of Chou’s family is from the “polar opposite” northern region in China (“we’re the dumplings and noodles, black vinegar and garlic-type of people”), her mother is from Hong Kong—where the Cantonese food is lighter, seafood- and vegetable-focused, and more similar to Yunnan. “The whole concept behind Yunnan Kitchen and Yunnan BBQ: if there’s a chef from Yunnan transplanted here [in New York]—what would they cook with what they have here? Because you can’t replicate food, but it’s more about keeping in the spirit, with techniques.” While we can’t speak to the authenticity of the dishes on offer, our experience there felt different and fresh, and the plates—with their surprising flavors—are served with confidence. The homeyness of the barbecued meats and fish, overseen by chef Doron Wong, is welcoming and sets a laid-back tone for the night. But Yunnan BBQ is, interestingly, also a venue where you could only order the vegetable sides and walk away feeling more than satisfied. In terms of complex flavor and fill, these aren’t your typical stir-fried greens.
Chou recalls the difficulty of finding a space because Yunnan Kitchen was her first restaurant (she’s since opened Northern Tiger, a casual farm-to-table counter featuring northern Chinese cuisine at Brookfield Place‘s Hudson Eats). “A lot of landlords won’t talk to you unless you have a restaurant already, or if you’ve done this before,” she says, “Because the failure rate is so high—it’s like an 80% or 90% failure rate in the first year.” The “only spot” she could get was at the very fringe of the LES, far off the beaten path, but home to other Asian restaurant gems like Yopparai and the now-closed wd-50. In a pretty DIY approach, Yunnan Kitchen started with a Craigslist ad that Chou posted: “Looking for a chef who likes Chinese food.”
Though Chou had no formal experience in restaurant managing, her background working as a producer for fashion photography helped. “We specialized in location shoots, so we did Tommy Hilfiger campaigns. The first one I helped with, we had to fly a grand piano into Olympic National Park, trek a mile into the woods with a crew of a hundred people. Those were the fun ones—the big productions, big logistics to figure out and pleasing everybody. So in that way, it translates really well to the restaurant industry.” Like dealing with the Pope’s visit to New York, when the companies she worked with halted their food deliveries for three days.
“After three and a half years, it’s a good time to freshen things up and re-concept. Keeps it interesting for us as well,” says Chou on the restaurant’s transformation into Yunnan BBQ. The sides are still familiar—seasonal greens to balance the meal, rice cakes (“Rachael Ray comes in and gets those all the time”), and they’ve kept their signature pomelo salad with poached shrimp and frilly wood ear mushrooms—one of the dishes that exemplifies southeast Asian flavors. Ingredients are changed to reflect the seasons, as they source from small farms around the upstate New York area as well as the local Greenmarket, tossing what’s fresh into the fried rice and rice cakes.
For first-timers at Yunnan BBQ, Chou recommends the Cha Shao pork ribs (this star of the menu is marinated for two days before being roasted and glazed with chili honey; it melted in our mouths but still felt substantial), the fresh and bright whole fish wrapped in a banana leaf, and the stir-fried mushrooms (a classic Yunnan dish) with Benton’s salt-cured ham. The best way to end a BBQ meal? Home-y brownies and cookies to top it off. “But we’re also going to bring Chinese influence back into it—which basically means fruit. Asians, we like to eat fruit for dessert,” laughs Chou. “It’s fresh, lightly sweet and cleansing.” Think passionfruit gélee with some coconut, coming soon.
Yunnan BBQ is located at 79 Clinton St, New York, NY 10002.
Interior images by Nara Shin, food images courtesy of Yunnan BBQ