Adam Yao, a mechanical engineering student at Stony Brook University, found himself longing for an authentic Chinese restaurant close to his new home. Rather than drive to Flushing on a weekly basis, the enterprising 24-year-old decided to open his own place.
Hardly a diner, Yao's is an attractive little eatery whose kitchen is commanded by a family friend from Beijing, Guo Jhang, a chef whose culinary style is decidedly Sichuan. Witness a cool pickled cabbage special riddled with ashy-hot Sichuan peppercorns. And steamed pork ribs, the tender, flavorful meat steeped in oil, an ingredient lavishly used in northern Chinese cuisine. This is a restaurant that doesn't pander to the suburban American palate -- reason enough for thanks. The menu was only recently translated into English. And the Mandarin-speaking crew is just about fluent enough to take your order. Service is sometimes solicitous, sometimes not; dishes arrive when they're ready. It's worth coping.
One night, there's West Lake beef soup, slightly glutinous, every sip unleashing a startling burst of flavor. A sprightly pork and pickled cabbage soup can make the eyes fly open.
Peanuts and fresh bamboo shoots define Jhang's ringing-hot kung pao chicken. A dish called "sauteed sliced chicken with chili and pepper" is actually chunks of poultry fried to a crunch and heaped with firecracker red chilies. Deep-fried hard-shell crab in "hot spicy sauce" is similarly done. In contrast, sauteed fish fillet with a mild white sauce is velvety, delectable.
Jhang does well with lamb, sauteing slices with scallions to delicious effect. In an even- more-inspired rendition, he coats strips with cumin before frying them. Poached sliced beef in hot chili oil is exactly what its name implies; a copious amount of oil also anoints chicken with string beans.
Vegetables are usually treated with respect: Sauteed snow pea leaves (the menu calls them snow beans) prove verdant, irresistible, as does Chinese celery sauteed with fresh bamboo shoots. But inconsistent cooking undermines fried potato chips with chili; some are crisp, others oily.
Some dishes are hard to like. Braised meat balls are spongy and odd-tasting, shrimp with tofu watery and bland, Beijing- style noodles with soy paste downright pasty.
Many will take refuge in such dishes as ham fried rice and beef lo mein. After all those hot chilies, it's nice to come across some comforting old friends.