Forty years ago, as a rookie Post-Dispatch writer on the restaurant beat, my first piece about Chinese food began, "Beware the peppers!" It hailed Yen Ching, a new Brentwood Boulevard establishment, as a ground-breaker, a pioneer in introducing the spicy cooking of Hunan and Peking to St. Louisans. It became a member of my Class of '72, one of five restaurants to open that year and change local dining habits forever.
The group also included Duff's, Anthony's, Balaban's and the Jefferson Avenue Boarding House. Three are gone and Duff's is up for sale. When that day arrives (sad for us; happy for Tim Kirby and Karen Duffy), Yen Ching will be able open the mythical bottle of aged brandy that goes to "Last Man Standing" competition winners.
Sadder that that, however, is the fact that Yen Ching no longer belongs in a top rank of restaurants. This is not a new decision, however. Over the years, we visited less often, did not include it in our books about St. Louis restaurants. But this year marking the 40th reunion of the Class of '72, and with the restaurant in the process of receiving a new front, we thought we'd visit for old times sake.
The menu, revolutionary to St. Louisans 40 years ago, is now stodgy. The peppers that were in such profusion were totally absent, even on dishes that were supposed to be "hot and spicy." There were a couple of fresh, hot (temperature, not spice), tasty dishes, but not nearly enough of them.
For example, hot and sour soup and pot-sticker dumplings were fine starters; the soup was rich, with excellent spicing, lots of vegetables and an ideal temperature for a wintry night. The balance between hot and sour was just right. Steamed dumplings were light and fresh with a nice hit of ginger in the ground pork filling. The attractively ridged exteriors had the perfect amount of cooking, arriving tender and pleasant, and the server splashed them with soy sauce and vinegar in proper amounts.
It was downhill from there. . . .
Moo Shu Pork was acceptable, though extremely bland. We had overheard a diner at a nearby table ask for extra spicing; we had not been offered the opportunity, as we often are in other Asian restaurants where spicing can vary. The wheat flour tortillas used as wrapping were good, topped with plum sauce and nicely assembled by a server who was a dab hand with his chopsticks. Yen Ching beef (shown) had a little heat, but not enough, and the beef was flavorful and tender; strips of carrots and celery added color, texture and flavor.
The other two entrees failed. Garlic chicken included chicken, mushrooms and water chestnuts, but there was almost no evidence or garlic or of flavor, and shrimp in black bean sauce turned out to be shrimp in a sauce that had only a handful of black beans -- not a black bean sauce. Very disappointing. Interestingly, with all these entrees, the first bites seemed pretty good but the flavors receded rapidly.
Service was competent and pleasant, but dinner at Yen Ching today is not a happy experience, and as autographed photographs of Mark McGwire and Fernando Vina looked down from the walls, we were reminded that they had peaked many years ago, too.
1012 S. Brentwood Blvd., Richmond Heights
Lunch & Dinner Daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor