Unable to decide on which restaurant to go to the night before our lunch date, I fished out my phone and quickly Yelped for restaurants in the San Mateo/Millbrae area that fit Bernice’s vague description of “a restaurant that serves Dan Dan noodles and frog legs” as she navigated down the busy road of El Camino. After scrolling through multiple entries, we finally came upon Yi Yuan Szechuan Restaurant, a spacious and quiet shop that promised chili peppers, chili oil, and all things red for spicy food lovers. I was quite excited since I hadn’t dined out for Chinese food in ages. The lunch crowd hasn’t quite floated in yet to create that noisy bustle so pervasive in Chinese restaurants, so Bernice and I were able to enjoy our conversation without shouting over others. The menu was quite voluminous, and it took us a while to figure what we wanted, but we finally decided on 紅油炒手 (wontons in chili oil), Szechuan Dan Dan Noodles, and Lanzhou Beef Ramen in a spicy soup base.
The waitress served us a complimentary bowl of spicy & sour soup, which Bernice took a suspicious spoonful of before declaring it to be unpalatable. I too took a spoonful but didn’t find it to be remarkably tasty or disagreeable, and so fished out the slices of crispy wood ear, tofu, and mushroom with my chopsticks while leaving the starchy soup behind.
The wontons arrived promptly in a glorious plate drenched in chili oil that had me excited as I imagined the levels of spiciness it contained. Appearances can be deceiving, and I promptly deflated after taking the first bite. The wontons (more suitably dumplings because of the thick wrapper skin) were meaty and flavored just right, with the sesame seeds providing extra crunch and scallions the aromatic flair, but they were not spicy at all. Bernice, not a fan of spicy foods, also agreed that they were quite neutral, which made me wonder if the kitchen had somehow added red food coloring to the oil.
The two bowls of noodles arrived quickly after, and we dug into the soup based ramen first. The noodles are pleasantly thick and chewy, and the slices of beef are thin and tender. My disappointment with the wontons was quickly reversed with the spicy soup base, and I felt the familiar tingly itchy sensation in my mouth as the Sichuan pepper coursed its way down. The bowl of noodles was quite big, and we felt almost full after finishing it.
Next was the Dan Dan Noodles, beautifully presented with thick snow pea sprouts on top and a generous sprinkle of minced pork. Like the ramen, the noodles were deliciously springy and thick, while the crispy pea sprouts broke up the monotony of carb heaven. The distinct aromatic spice of the Sichuan pepper still dominated the dish, but it was less spicy than the ramen. There were only hints of peanut and sesame in the thick sauce though, and I was unaccustomed to the taste. We didn’t manage to finish the dish.
By the time we were working away on the Dan Dan noodles, a healthy line of people started to flow in. I particularly liked the quiet atmosphere before, but I suppose that noisy chatter can also provide a sense of privacy to our own conversation, which today, roamed around travel plans and funny tactics we had with dealing with the less polite people in Hong Kong and China. This would be our last meal together for a while as Bernice jets off to Asia for the summer, and I had wanted to stretch it as long as I could. Eventually I had to ask for the bill before it looked like I had taken an unreasonably long lunch break from work, although I did so regrettably. The waitress (one and only in the restaurant) helped pack our leftovers, took care of the check (which was complicated and frustrating to split with their $20 minimum credit charge), and thanked us as we stepped out into the sunny afternoon. I will miss Bernice very much, but hey, at least I suppose there are exciting travel and food posts for the upcoming two months.
Yi Yuan Szechuan Restaurant
1711 El Camino Real
Millbrae, CA 94030