I’ve got hai shen in my tummy
Yummi House is owned by Carol Chiang, a former Chopstix waitress who struck out on her own with one of Albuquerque’s newest Chinese restaurants. Inside, the restaurant is clean and sunny, with buttercup yellow walls accented by red, knotted string creations. Charming plum booths are embossed with black and beige Chinese symbols. The kitchen is partially revealed by a window and, from the vantage point I had at the time of my visit, looked clean as a whistle.
“You can come into the kitchen right now—anytime,” she stated with a confident pose and a smile that showed no worry.
Yummi House offers a proper cross-section of hearty Chinese fare with a good dose of Korean for added oomph. The culinary tour begins with Southern Cantonese dishes like bell pepper-beef and sweet-and-sour pork, and Western Hunan and Szechuan-inspired entrées like eggplant with garlic sauce and General Tso’s chicken (available with all-white meat). There's a taste of the East with paper-wrapped chicken. The North of China is represented with traditional pork mu shu and the house specialty of Peking duck, its skin rubbed with honey and then roasted, served with plum sauce and little pancakes (give them 24 hours notice to order).
The regular menu also includes several Korean dishes like short ribs, beef stew in soy sauce and spicy squid. Chiang even whips out a separate menu for guests that crave more Korean than Chinese foods, available upon request.
If only everything in life were so full of choices! I went traditional with crystal chicken ($7.95), off-the-beaten-path with sea cucumber in brown sauce ($15.95) and somewhere in the middle with the “happy family” special ($10.95).
Of course, the beginning of any good Chinese meal is half the fun. I had a tasty plate of egg rolls ($1.95), fried crispy and filled with shredded pork, thin rice noodles and a whisper of mushroom, cabbage and carrot. Their version of crab- and cream cheese-filled wontons are called "crab angle" ($4.95), but most of us know them as crab rangoon. The six little yummies I received were perfectly prepared and, although they were followed by a cup of decent hot and sour soup ($1.35), I could have ordered more.
I'm glad I saved room for dinner, though. Overall, mine was delicious. The crystal chicken bore a striking resemblance to moo goo gai pan. In fact, I found nothing to differentiate between the two dishes—but I wasn't disappointed. The thinly shaved white chicken was moist, and the cuts of carrot, zucchini, bok choy and water chestnut were al dente. It was served in a clear and savory sauce, graced with an abundance of perfectly shaped straw mushrooms.
I’ve seen "happy family" on menus before, but lacking a concise listing of ingredients, I've always passed it up, saying “next time, next time.” My time had finally come. The sizzling iron plate produced bites of crab meat, shrimp, sliced scallops, chicken and Chinese greens, all gently stir-fried in a thick, salty soy sauce. It was fantastic over a bed of expertly prepared fried rice.
And then there was the sea cucumber. I usually go out of my way to experience new foods, but I was feeling conflicted about this one. I asked Chiang several questions about the life and times of the main ingredient, called hai shen in Chinese, before I ordered it. She sold it like you’d sell your geeky cousin to your hot friend for a blind date.
“It’s very high protein and low cholesterol,” she said. Seeing that I wanted a more comprehensive description, she told me they were “little sea creatures—no eyes—kind of gooey.”
She got the gooey part dead on, and after about three pensive bites I would describe sea cucumber as being akin to strips of moss-colored, kelp-flavored gelatin. The wiggly strips were highlighted in a vegetative, smoky sauce filled with mushrooms and bamboo, and although I wouldn’t say I was a fan of the dish, the judgment was solely personal preference.
Chiang came by the table to check on me several times and caught me staring at my plate with trepidation rather than eating as I had done with the other entrées.
“They don’t bite,” she chuckled. “You must bite them.”