Don’t be fooled by appearances
Whatever Ypbor Yan may look like — and if you don’t read Chinese, it’s hard to tell from the road — it’s a Sichuan restaurant, and an excellent one. Its name is a mashup of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, highlighting its location between the cities. Don’t be fooled by the previous restaurant’s neon signage still on the side of the building and the carried-over interior decoration; it’s a new place in the ways that count. Flavors are balanced, spicy dishes are hot without becoming one-note onslaughts, and there’s even a regional cuisine from within the Chinese Province of Sichuan represented.
We’ve focused on the authentic Chinese section of the menu in our review, because it’s so intriguing and well-executed. Instead of following the very complex menu categories, we’re going to present you with a number of dishes we really liked, and we’re going to give you their assigned numbers so you can find them. The staff are not all fully fluent in English, but they are friendly and enthusiastic and will help non-Chinese diners navigate the menu. If you ask them to be authentic with the spice level, they will.
Appetizers / Small Plates
Starting a fancy meal with a selection of cold (and some hot) appetizers is a Chinese practice, and Ypbor Yan provides a lot of options.
Sweet/Sour Cucumber (CA11) - Cut into long spirals - have a utensil handy! These chilled cucumbers pickled in a sweet slightly sour sauce are refreshing break from the many spicy dishes. If you’re going to order a lot of hot dishes, consider including this one as a foil. One of our group dubbed them the “Burn Neutralizer”.
Shredded Bamboo (CA10) - Tender cool strips of bamboo in a chili-based sauce that, while spicy, is not one of the hotter dishes on the menu. Even if you’re not fond of the typical canned bamboo strips found in many stir-fries, we recommend giving this a try. It might just change the way you feel about bamboo. (Lisa is certainly a convert.) The Spicy Dried Tofu Salad (CA05) has a similar sauce.
Spiced beef with tangerine (Z02) - From the Zi Gong regional section, this is one of the spiciest dishes we ordered. Not the Americanized orange beef in thick sweet sauce -- instead, it’s a plate of tender slices of beef with bits of tangerine peel, stir-fried with chillies, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorns. The chili oil mixes with the peel’s citrus oil to give this dish a quick kick.
Pork with Greenbeans (M46) - Practically every Chinese restaurant has a version of this dish, but Ypbor Yan’s is superlative and was universally a favorite of our group. (We even know people who request two orders of this offering when they come here in groups.) A big mass of green beans — not too crunchy, not too limp — topped with a sprinkling of salty ground pork, which is stir-fried until crisp. There’s also a vegetarian version.
Squirrel-Tail Fish with 2-flavor (HO3) - Two boneless fillets of fish lightly battered and deep fried, one in a dark sweet-sour sauce and the other in a red-orange spicy-salty sauce. The fish is cut with a criss-cross pattern that causes the fillets to curl when fried, thus giving them their “squirrel-tail” name.
Crispy Eggplant with Fragrant Sauce (M42) meaty but creamy-tender slices of eggplant wrapped in a thick, crunchy (but not oily) batter and topped with a decadent sweet sauce and a sprinkling of peas and carrot. A nice contrast to the spicy dishes. The eggplant lovers devoured this dish, and even non-eggplant fans enjoyed it.
Double Cooked Pork (M05) - a favorite of several of our group, this dish is for the bacon lovers who want their bacon hot and slightly crispy. Strips of smokey, salty, fatty pork served with slightly sweet chunks of cabbage and garlic in a chili-oil based sauce. Perhaps the perfect beer food. If you’ve had “twice-cooked pork” at Americanized restaurants before, this is better. Much better.
Salt Merchants’ Chicken (Z08) - Another one of the Zi Gong special regional dishes. It wasn’t unusually salty, but it was strongly flavored, spicy, and quite good. Perfect little chunks of chicken in a dry chili-Sichuan pepper-salt based coating served with a side of beautifully prepared gai lan (Chinese broccoli). It’s normally made with tiny chunks of bone-in chicken requiring special skill to disarm, but we wimped out and asked for boneless.
Spiced Shrimp in Wok (SW10) - Arriving at the table in an impressive wok, this pile of shell-on shrimp and vegetables visually delights and is the spiciest dish we tried. The shrimp don’t require much work to eat: the heads pull off easily, and the back of the shell has been split to make it easier to get the meat out. The aroma is heavenly.
Salt Miners’ Beef (Z04) - Another Zi Gong regional dish, it comes to the table in a small iron cauldron filled with soft jelly-like noodles, “silky melon”, and tender beef strips in a bubbling hot broth. Carries some heat, making it perfect for a cold winter day.
Lamb with sweet potatoes (H11) - Steamed meat is not often seen on Chinese restaurant menus, but it’s more common in Chinese home cooking. In this case, thin-sliced lamb is steamed over a bed of thick-cut sweet potatoes with a sprinkle of ground chile over the top bringing a touch of heat.
From experience, we can tell you that we know we’ve hit a great new place when our review team keeps going back there afterwards -- this is one of those. It’s worth it.
Lisa and Joe have been blogging about food in the Ann Arbor area (and points beyond) since 2004. Check them out at www.kitchenchick.com.