I had no idea that Yum Yum Chinese, on Race Street, a place I’d walked or driven by more times than I could count, was actually open. I thought it was just a ghost sign from a place that had been open during the 60s and the 70s, a time when Chinese food was pretty exotic.
Laura from Cincinnati Nomerati assured me that they were open and that I should try it out. She warned me: the scale from 1-10 for spiciness, 5 was “too much”. That there wasn’t much space to dine. To be patient after we knocked on the door.
So, with two friends in tow, The Better Half and I walked down to Race Street, not knowing quite what to expect. We knocked on Yum Yum’s door and were greeted, after a beat, by the woman owner, who cooks the food as well. ”Four?” she asked, before indicating to her husband (who also serves at the restaurant’s lone waiter) that he needed to take us into the dining room.
The restaurant is a bit labyrinthine, with a front room, a long hallway, and two dining rooms. You’ll pass what seem to be the contents of an apartment, as well as pictures in the hallway of the restaurant’s glory days– all from the 70s. The decor hasn’t changed: wood paneling, Chinese lanterns, red water jugs made out of thick plastic. There’s no liquor license (and he explains that BYOB is illegal, showing the response from the State to a letter he wrote asking about it). The tables have signs that say “cash only, please”. The menus are probably from the 70s, too, with articles from the Cincinnati Post and Enquirer raving about their food– and how it was a popular place for local celebrities.
Unfortunately, that evening, he had to turn the lights on for us– we were obviously their first dine-in customers.
We all mulled over the menu: three meat eaters and one vegetarian. The prices are a little higher than what you might be used to for typical Chinese food– for two of us, we spent $40: an appetizer and two entrees. We ordered the fried dumplings as a starter, as well as entrees: the vegetarian do fu, aromatic beef, Ding Dong Chicken and sweet and sour chicken. The food is cooked fresh (and tastes that way, too), so it took a bit to get entrees out, but our waiter was generous with water and soda as we waited.
It was worth the wait.
The fried wontons were served with a sweet and sour sauce as well as some vinegary chili sauce. The waiter explained that we should be careful– the chili sauce was hot! It was, but it was a slow burn– from the back of your throat up to the roof of your mouth that dissipated quickly once it peaked. The sweet and sour sauce was unlike any I’d ever had– sweet and sour, certainly, but not the overly sweet, bright red stuff we are used to getting at your average Chinese restaurant. It went well with the pork-filled, delicately seasoned dumplings. We were learning quickly: this isn’t your average Chinese restaurant.
Our entrees were brought out with steamed rice. The Ding Dong Chicken (which, admittedly, sounds a bit silly) was delicious at a level 4 (and, in fact, I think I could have handled the level 5): well balanced with spice and a rich, brown sauce. The vegetables were very fresh and crisp, and there was some tofu for good measure. I didn’t quite lick the plate clean, but I was quite tempted to.
The Better Half’s sweet and sour chicken was more of that sweet and sour sauce with some very lightly fried chicken– so lightly fried that we debated whether it had breading or not. The breading was light, the texture not a bit heavy , and the sauce (a level 3) just spicy enough for him.
The stand-out dish, however, was our friend Jeremy’s aromatic beef. The dish was simple: tender slices of beef in a delicately-seasoned sauce (another level 4, which worked well with this dish) with broccoli and other vegetables. It’s the best, freshest “beef and broccoli”-style dish I’ve had. When we go back (which will happen sooner rather than later), I’m definitely getting that.
Our vegetarian friend didn’t fare quite as well. There weren’t any vegetarian appetizers, and her vegetarian do fu wasn’t to her liking: underseasoned, even when she added a bit of the spicy vinegar and the sweet and sour sauce. Perhaps the vegetarian fried rice next time?
But for meat eaters, this is a great, quiet gem in the middle of Race Street. I’d try to stop in– even just for takeout– sometime soon. It’s a relic of an era gone by, but one you don’t want to miss. They’re only open from 6-9:30 on Fridays and Saturdays.