If you grew up in an era where chow mein was in the rotation with corn dogs and pizza on the elementary school cafeteria lunch menu, you could be excused for holding an aversion to that kind of American-style Chinese food, the kind that is available in every town, no matter how small or how far flung. You probably long ago sought out more palate-challenging fare like Korean or Hmong, never casting a backward glance at your neighborhood Chinese takeout lest you turn into a pillar of MSG. But if you are inclined to rethink your biases, you’d be well served to start with the Kung Pao Chicken ($11, or $8.50 as a combination dinner) at Yang’s Chinese Restaurant in Woodbury.
Yang’s is a curious mash-up of suburban strip mall cafe and classic, nostalgia-inducing Chinese-American restaurant. It’s the kind of place where your grandmother would know exactly what to order, where a tattooed waitress with a beehive hairdo wearing cat’s-eye glasses serves chow mein and egg foo young beneath Chinese-style light fixtures and Asian-patterned drop-ceiling tiles. On a recent balmy winter lunch hour, it was packed with the fork-wielding masses (you have to ask for chopsticks), every zodiac placemat covered with familiar dishes.
We took a good tour around the menu, and everyone at the table agreed that the kung pao chicken was by far the standout. To give credit where credit is due, a knowing tipster told us this is what we needed to try, and those who failed to heed that advice were green with food envy. It’s a simple but delicious dish: chicken, plentiful green onions, and peanuts, wok-fried in a sweet and salty sauce flavored with garlic, ginger and pepper in the Szechuan style, with bits of chili throughout. At spice level 3 of 5 it was quite mild, so this is not a place to be afraid to climb a rung or two higher up the spice ladder than you normally might. Ordered as part of a combo, the dish is preceded by the soup of your choice (wonton or sweet and sour) and served with fried rice and an eggroll. The eggroll and fried rice were forgettable, so for your money, skip the combo and get the straight dish.
Yang’s Chinese Restaurant, 1568 Woodlane Dr, Woodbury, MN 55125; 651.731.5459