Boundaries drawn up by rulers and military leaders usually don't mean much when it comes to food. That quickly becomes apparent at Yao’s Restaurant in Alhambra, a Chinese-Korean place that features hyper-regional, border-crossing dishes that long predate the term “fusion.”
At first glance, Yao’s menu, which is small by San Gabriel Valley standards, suggests that it's a fairly standard Dongbei-style joint. Dongbei fare tends to be hearty, with a stick-to-the-ribs quality that befits the blue-collar region of China known for its harsh winters. There’s sauerkraut-like pickled cabbage (suan cai), either mixed with pork in a rich stew or tucked inside dumplings as a filling. There's sweet and sour pork — which originated in Dongbei. And you’ll find the cumin-rubbed skewers of various meats that are ubiquitous in northern Chinese places. There's also a version of naengmyeon (Korean cold noodles) with dark, chewy noodles and a refreshing broth.
But it turns out that the cooking at Yao's isn't Dongbei at all but rather Yanbian, a area of China formally known as the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture — it's part of the Jilin Province and borders North Korea. A large number of China’s Korean population live there, and, as one might surmise, its cuisine is a hybrid of Chinese and Korean. In the 1990s, many North Korean refugees fled famine in their country, joining a long-established Korean community there. This explains the cold appetizer tubs near the restaurant's counter, which contained both Chinese pickled cabbage and Korean kimchi, sliced cold sausage and two types of daikon radish, among other options.
The most unique dishes here are the porridges (congee), the fried pancakes and the corn noodles — items that bridge the Korean-Chinese divide.
If you get the corn noodles, made from corn meal in Chinese fashion, you’ll be asked how spicy you’d like them. A dollop of pepper paste that seems to be gochujang tops your bowl and provides a kick uncommon in Dongbei-style cooking. Those fried pancakes, which include sweet, mochi-like versions filled with pumpkin or purple yam as well as thin, crispy, Korean-style pancakes made with potato or zucchini (translated into English on the menu as “horned melon”) are ideal for sharing. And there are eight different porridges available, with sea cucumber, shrimp, vegetables, Chinese yam (nagaimo) or the classic combo of pork with preserved egg among your options.
This question might arise, for people who categorize this type of thing, of whether Yao's Restaurant is Chinese-Korean or Korean-Chinese. The signage and menu are in Chinese (and English), and Chinese is spoken, so Yao’s is clearly a Chinese restaurant. If you're looking for food from the same region but with more Korean influences, there’s the aptly named Yanbian in Koreatown, which offers a kind of reverse perspective of similar dishes.
Yao's Restaurant (CLOSED), 1277 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 281-9261.