Yen Ching 

I don't remember the first time I ate Chinese food, but I recall my formative years when Chinese restaurant menus were stocked with foreign words with different meanings than their English sound indicated. Chinese dining was interesting because I never knew exactly what I would get.

I also used to walk to school barefoot in the snow. Uphill. Both ways. My, how times have changed. Now I have shoes, and now I know what to expect when I order something at a Chinese restaurant because words like "spicy," "general's" and "sweet and sour" conjure references to a mall food court.

Even though Yen Ching uses these words to title their entrees, I am still taken back to those seminal feeding years when Chinese food burst in my mouth with unusual and interesting flavors, not just the unguttural burst of fried meat 'neath MSG and corn starch.

Lunch at Yen Ching is a good way to go. It is bright, high-ceilinged and homed with windows open to the streets of downtown Boise, providing a satisfying, voyeuristic experience.

Louie the Lumberjack and I did lunch. Downtown spot, lumberjack clothes? No fear. Yen Ching does not judge. Instead they offer a bonus salad bar with lunch, so hungry men can make sure to fill up for more log sawing.

"Yay, chicken wings!" Louie exclaimed when we hustled to the petite salad bar that offered iceberg salad, a cold meat-n-noodle vat and, of course, brown-glazed wings.

After opening with salad and ranch dressing (because they only offer ranch), the slightly distracted but committed waitress brought a bowl of sizzling rice soup for us to share. The rice was sizzling just how I like it, like Snap, Crackle and Pop on ecstasy. In the mild, clear broth we hunted chicken, shrimp, peas, carrots and water chestnuts.

Though we ate plenty of the soup, we didn't quite finish because the soft-spoken waitress came bearing gifts, in the form or our meals. Louie had the hot pepper chicken that came with a molded mound of no-meat fried rice and half an egg roll. I got the spicy Thai chicken noodles, also paired with half an egg roll.

Mine was too hot to eat right away, so I snapped at Louie's pile of lightly fried chicken pieces coated in a thin maroon varnish. Hey, Yen Ching, dump the lame name and just call it Sum Good Yum! Not that hot and not that peppery, the chicken dish instantly reminded me of those old flavors of intrigue and delicate unfamiliarity.

The noodle dish was equally smashing. The plate-sized pile included peppers, onions, basil, egg, tomatoes and chicken. It was a savory, vibrant medley of colors and flavors and it was so big I could uncover only a small arc of the plate.

Next out were Styrofoam boxes and requisite fortune cookies. My fortune was perfect. "You will enjoy a large share of money in the near future." And heck, if all I had to do for my large share was eat a good meal, I'll call it a lunch hour well spent.

--Jennifer Gelband has a peculiar and dominating yen for cha-ching.

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