Ask Jimmy Yuan how he ended up here, and the answer is simple: He wanted a change, found out about Boise after some very perfunctory research, and showed up on a rainy day. Something about the feel and the smell of Boise reminded him of his youth in Taiwan, and the rest is history.
Yuan opened Golden Phoenix Oriental Express in downtown Boise with his wife Chau 16 years ago. Chau was a little surprised by Boise at first—especially the unique hairstyles and clothing of folks hanging out at Neurolux and The Record Exchange across the street from the restaurant—but she quickly adapted. The Yuans now have three kids: Dean and Sarah are still teenagers but Jonathan, 23, is studying to be an aeronautical engineer.
A few things set Oriental Express apart from other Chinese-food options in town, one of which is Yuan’s willingness to accommodate nearly any request. The noodle soup dish started as something Yuan would make for his own lunch. But when a man from a neighboring business fell in love with the soup, and repeatedly sent friends in to request “Boss’ Noodles,” the dish finally transitioned onto the menu.
Another regular customer sometimes orders Dungeness crab, which requires three-days' advance notice to gather the ingredients, some of which must be brought in from California. However, since being told by a fortune teller that his back is covered in the spirits of dead crustaceans, Yuan no longer kills the crabs himself.
Regular customers looking for more traditional dishes that don’t require any pre-planning gravitate toward the fish head soup and Chinese eggplant. Oriental Express is also a local favorite among vegetarians, because they’ll make a meatless version of almost any item on their extensive menu, excluding the ones that require oyster sauce.
Yuan says that Boise is one of the best cities he knows of, that the people are nice, the atmosphere is good and he likes the amount of business he gets here. As far as he’s is concerned, having too many customers is just as bad as not having enough. He values the people who come back to the restaurant time and time again, tries to learn their tastes, and is always ready to discuss the medicinal values of the ingredients he uses. In Yuan’s opinion, the best hospital is your own kitchen.
"My customers take care of me," he explains, "and I take care of them."
If you weren’t cooking for a living, what would you be doing?
What food could you eat every day?
What is your favorite food or restaurant scene in a movie?
The Peking Duck scene in A Christmas Story. (Chau jumped in on this question when Yuan couldn’t think of an answer.)
Patrick Trakel is the author of local food blog Treasure Valley Treats and Tragedies. You can follow him at treatsandtragedies.com or at facebook.com/treatsandtragedies.