Yunnan cuisine doesn't get the kind of respect accorded to the cuisine from other provinces. It isn't included in the “Eight Schools” of Chinese cuisine, instead being relegated to a subset of its neighbor to the north, Sichuan. Adding to that, there are only 11 Yunnan-style restaurants in the entire United States — but fortunately for us, half of those are scattered across the San Gabriel Valley. Yet even at these restaurants, the menus are dominated by Sichuan dishes, with only a handful of Yunnan items to be found. Of these few Yunnan menu selections, the best known is the “Crossing The Bridge Noodles,” the signature dish of the province.
There are many stories about the origin of the name, with the most often repeated involving a wife taking soup across a bridge to a small island where her husband was studying for his imperial exam. By the time she'd reach the other side of the winding footbridge, the soup would be cold, the noodles soggy. The story goes that one day a layer of oil and fat kept the broth warm and adding the noodles and meats allowed it to cook to perfection on the spot.
Folklore aside, the dish continues at Yunnan restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. It can be found at Yunnan Garden and its former sister restaurant, Yunkun Garden, as menu item #1, Yunnan House Special Rice Noodle Soup. Watching how the dish is served is worthy of the price alone. Your server brings a large bowl of boiling hot broth, with either a cutting board or plate of raw vegetables and lightly cooked meats resting atop the bowl. The server then pushes thin slices of ham, chunks of skin on chicken, chicken skin, strips of bean curd sheets, chives, sprouts and rice noodles into the broth, where it quickly cooks lightly, schmaltz and oil glistening atop the surface. Let the boiling liquid sit for a bit, stir and dish it out to your small bowl.
The broth is pure chicken, though extremely mild; and it purposely borders on the bland: That's what the condiments on the table are for. With the rice noodles and fresh chicken, it's reminiscent of an extremely subtle version of Vietnamese pho ga. Which shouldn't surprise anyone, as Yunnan shares a border with Vietnam.
The vegetable ingredients can vary slightly from restaurant to restaurant, with some foregoing the sprouts in favor of chives alone. Yunkun Garden, a restaurant likely more familiar by one of its prior names, features a much nicer presentation. There, the server will slide each ingredient in and then swish together gently with chopsticks. And when it is cold and rainy outside, it's something you will see going on at nearly every table.
This dish can also be found at restaurants in Hacienda Heights and West Covina (see the list below).
Follow Jim Thurman on Twitter @JThur01.
168 Garden: 1530 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 280-7688.
Kun Ming Garden: 965 S. Glendora Ave., West Covina, (626) 337-1888.
Yunkun Garden: 301 N. Garfield Ave. #D, Monterey Park, (626) 571-8387.
Yunnan Garden: 545 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 308-1896.
Yunnan Garden: 1229 S. Hacienda Blvd., Hacienda Heights, (626) 330-8145.