Growing up on the East Coast, if you didn’t have Christmas dinner at home with the family all around a trophy turkey, baked ziti, and meatballs on the side, you went to eat Chinese.
Back then there weren’t a lot of options on a bank holiday weekend so this is where you would go if you didn’t want to cook. Chan’s Garden was our family’s hangout in Dunellen, New Jersey, just a little restaurant tucked away in a brick building towards the end of Main Street.
For me, the yen for Chinese food and chopsticks surfaces every two weeks, but it’s unmistakable during the holidays. This year, Yuan Yuan in Ashland was very busy on Christmas Day: phones were on hold for hours, a dozen people piled up to take out, and all the tables were full. Chef Daniel Gan and his sous chef prepared for days before the holidays, and they ran three woks non-stop on December 25. None of the crew sat or ate before closing. All hands were on deck for the rush: owners Daniel and Vivian Gan, their two sons, Anthony and Anderson, and their daughter, Samantha, home for the holidays; also Vivian’s dad, Daniel’s cousin and even Jaqueline Little, who retired about five years ago.
Yuan Yuan is a family owned Ashland institution that has been serving good food for 14 years. Daniel Gan was a chef at Kim’s in Medford when it closed, then bought Ashland Restaurant in 2005, bringing Kim’s famous pink sauce and red faux leather banquettes to Yuan Yuan. It’s not a fancy place, and you won’t find the rarefied cuisines of Sichuan, Jiangsu, or Shandong. Instead, you’ll find the classic Chinese-American dishes that have been refined over the past 200 years for the American palate.
Yuan Yuan is the archetypal Chinese-American restaurant, with General Tso’s chop suey, chow mein and chicken on the menu and much more in the beef, poultry, pork, and seafood sections. protein is almost endless, with your choice of steamed rice, brown rice
(50 cents extra) or stir-fried rice with pork ($ 1.25 extra). You will also find lo mein (soft and thin noodles) and chow fun (wide rice noodles), foo young eggs (like an omelet), moo shu (with thin pancakes) and Thai dishes.
There are plenty of veg and tofu selections to choose from, and picky eaters will also be happy at Yuan Yuan, with grilled cheese, burgers and fries, and fish and chips on the menu.
Yuan Yuan never uses MSG as a flavoring agent, and therefore the taste of each ingredient is fresh and true.
The hand-pinched meatballs ($ 8.50 for eight) are tender and juicy, savory flavors spring up as you bite. The shrimp rolls ($ 7 for three) and spring rolls ($ 6.50 for three) are fried crisp and inside the veg are still crunchy, full of flavor. A variety of other dim sum is on the menu, including crab puffs, steamed pork buns, and shao mai.
I have many favorite dishes in Yuan Yuan, dishes that I order at any Chinese American restaurant and judge by taste memories from my first Chinese American restaurant experience in New Jersey.
Yuan Yuan’s sweet and sour soup is delicious, flavored with just the right amount of vinegar, and full of tofu, mushrooms, and pulled pork (get a large one for $ 8 to share). The Moo Shu Pork ($ 11.75) is delicate with a beaten egg, cabbage, and shitake served with thin pancakes and sweetened with a hoisin sauce. Moo Goo Gai Pan ($ 11.50) is another of my favorites Yuan Yuan, a sweet dish consisting of velvety chicken with pea pods, carrots, and water chestnut; I pour a drizzle of dark soy sauce to add a salty touch to the dish. Sometimes for me a supplement might be the Szechwan Eggplant ($ 11.50), with eggplants so creamy they melt in my mouth.
Order your dish mild, medium, or hot, and Yuan Yuan will use just the right amount of chili garlic sauce for your taste – no jalapenos in this kitchen. My husband’s favorite is the Beef with Broccoli ($ 12), “hot, hot, hot,” I say when ordering for him, so there’s no mistake. Ed loves hot sauce on almost everything, his forehead is sweating from the heat.
Portions are generous at Yuan Yuan, whether on-site or take-out, so plan to share a family style. Love having leftovers that make a second dinner at home the next day, maybe with a take out order of spring rolls or dumplings and new rice from the stove. If there is any Moo Shu Pork left over, it makes a great soup with a can of chicken broth and any noodles that might be in the fridge.
This year I made a rib roast for Christmas dinner and despite following every step of the not-so-long recipe and carefully monitoring the oven temperatures, the roast was tough and dry. Next year for Christmas dinner is Chinese takeout for us – from Yuan Yuan.
Yuan Yuan, 2270 Ashland St., is open from noon to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Call ahead for take out at 541-482-8220. Yuan Yuan does not have a website or Facebook presence, nor does he need one.
Contact Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at email@example.com.
Broccoli Beef Takeaway, Moo Goo Gai Pan, Spring Rolls and Kim’s Famous Rose Sauce at Yuan Yuan in Ashland. Photo by Maureen Flanagan Battistella