Old Town Pasadena. I can’t even remember how old I was when I first walked down Colorado Blvd, but Pasadena (Old Town, in particular) is probably where my social life began. I guess it’s an odd thought to think of the start of your social life, but to me it is marked by the first circle of friends or flurry of nighttime activity after you’ve moved out of mom and dad’s house and are a bonafide, independent adult.
Old Town was the perfect setting for a young, inexperienced 20-something to carve out that first, social life. There was an all-ages coffee house called The E-Bar where my friend and I could spend hours sitting and talking, only having spent a couple of bucks on a giant bowl of coffee (this was before wi-fi so it wasn’t packed with MacBook-toting students). You could get your first fancy brunch (eggs benedict) at the Old Town Bakery and pretend to be sophisticated, sitting outside next to a fountain on a sunny morning. There was something about Old Town that made me feel grown up and I felt it was my hang-out because anytime I’d roam the streets, I’d run into at least two or three people I knew. I’d arrived into adulthood!
Fast forward to the present and the restaurants that lined Colorado Blvd have changed no less that five or six times per space since those days. Old Town Bakery is now Villa Sorrisso; The E-Bar is long gone. Chefs like Hugo Molina who were quite famous back in those days have moved out (I hear he has a place in Whittier now?) and it seems the “fast-casual” restaurant (Cheesecake Factory, Pita Jungle) have taken over the city….save for one, dark horse who has been in Old Town for 20 years. Yujean Kang’s.
In all my years of hanging out in Old Town, I never (for some reason) dined at Yujean Kang’s until about two years ago, and I barely remember that visit. I think one of us was craving noodles or something so we slipped in, ate, then hurried out to get to an appointment of some sort. I’ve always known it was there, especially since I’m a regular at Vertical Wine Bistro (one of the better restaurants that have popped up in Pasadena over the last few years) which is right across the street. I guess I just didn’t really know what Yujean Kang’s had to offer, and although the fact they’ve managed to stay in business in cut-throat Pasadena should’ve been a sign that they were GOOD, I never revisited.
Last week I was invited to try lunch at Yujean Kang’s, and I jumped at the chance- after all, we grew up in Pasadena together, and I felt that I’d neglected one of the only places still standing after so many years. I rarely go to Chinese, not because I don’t like it (who doesn’t like Chinese food?!) but because I’m too lazy to drive out to San Gabriel on most nights (pathetic) and the few places around my house serve up Chinese food of the uber-gloppy, neon-colored, twice-fried orange chicken variety. I mean, that stuff is good if you’ve put away an entire bottle of tequila the night before (or so I’ve heard…) but it isn’t what you want to be consuming on a regular basis.
My dining companion and I decided to order the lettuce wraps plus three different dishes and share them. I couldn’t resist and had to get the Kung Pao Chicken- I mean, it’s a classic, right? We also ordered the Sauteed Pork Loin with Fresh Leek and the Ants On Tree (I’ll explain in a sec!).
The lettuce wraps were literally stuffed with a savory chicken mixture, and I was happy to see the chicken thigh meat chopped, not ground. It was a nice way to start the meal.
Kung Pao Chicken. What can I say, I loved it. The red chiles look intimidating, I know, but the heat in this dish was spot on. We avoided eating the actual peppers (if you do, I’m sure the heat meter will be kicked up!) and I loved how crunchy and smoky the peanuts were.
Sauteed Pork Loin with Fresh Leek: If leeks are on a menu, there’s a good chance I’ll order them. I am an onion fiend, and whether they’re in the form of scallions, leeks, chives or any other variety, I’m eating them and in large quantities. This dish was packed with the sweet onions and had a lot of garlic chives to boot, which was a nice contrast to the tender slices of pork.
Ants on Tree: This was a surprise dish, and as you can see, it looks like there are tiny black ants on a tree. I realize that isn’t the most appetizing way to look at this dish but once you take a bite you’ll get over the image. I usually have glass noodles cold and was surprised to see how well they worked in a hot dish. The beef was so tender you could just pull it apart with your chopsticks, and the flavors, once again, were perfect.
The thing I noticed most about the food at Yujean Kang’s is that it was clean- no gloppy sauces or overly salty preparations. The restaurant also offers a fine-dining environment but the prices are reasonable- especially when you consider that even the lunch portions are enough to feed a family of four. The two of us made a nice dent in our meal but still had enough to split the leftovers- my half fed me AND my husband the next day. Did you know Chinese food is the king of all leftovers? It is. Trust me.
I’m really glad to have gotten reacquainted with this restaurant which has seen so many other dining establishments come and go, and there’s a reason for that. I got the opportunity to see Yujean Kang’s with fresh eyes and I won’t make the mistake of letting years pass before I visit again. The dinner menu offers many dishes that I can’t wait to try- the Peking Duck and two different lamb dishes sound right up my alley- so I’ll definitely be putting this OG (Original Gangster) in my regular rotation.Yujean Kang’s 67 North Raymond Ave. Pasadena, CA 91103