Thursday, September 6, 2012

So What Makes a Restaurant Memorable?

Sure, good food is part of the equation. But the places I remember most fondly have something beyond food. They have a friendly and inviting atmosphere with an owner who more than likely is a visible presence. And that brings us to our new find—Yummy Café in Santa Fe.

Yummy Café is owned by Donald Chang and his brother and they are ably assisted by Donald’s wife whose name, I regret, we did not get. But starting with the friendly greeting when you walk through the doors, through the tableside conversation about food preparation, to the “thank you for coming” as you leave, you feel as though you are the most important diners they will serve all day.

“The Yummy Cafe in Santa Fe doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside the walls are filled with art and the food is delicious.

“Beginning with the cheerful mechanical cat that greets customers with a wave of its paw, Yummy Cafe puts a friendly spin on Chinese fare…. Service and ambience are a bonus. Although Yummy doesn’t look like much from the outside, it’s a different world once you come through the front door. The walls are filled with art and the tables and booths have enough space between them to allow for private conversations.

“Round red lanterns hang in contrast to the exhibit of New Mexican landscapes and black-and-white sketches of Chinese zodiac animals (The sign of the Sheep, below). During the day, natural light adds softness to the room. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was in one of Santa Fe’s higher-priced establishments” (Anne Hillerman at
While both Wok’s and Chow’s Asian Bistro’s décor bordered on elegance, Yummy Café’s is best described as modern industrial meets traditional Chinese. The main dining area is broken into two distinct areas—one on each side of the entry. A long bar runs toward the back of the café.

And off to the side is a small and more intimate dining room.

Many Santa Fe restaurants use their spaces as galleries for local artists and at Yummy Café art abounds. Behind the bar hangs a large black and white print by seventy-year-old James A. McGrath, who is
described as “’Teacher, mentor, instructor, professor, inspiration, counselor, guide’--all the usual words, even strung together, do not
span the contribution that James McGrath has made to students.
‘Painter, sculptor, poet, writer’--the list only begins to describe his artistic achievements.
‘Environmentalist, innovator, advocate, citizen of the world’--again the labels fall short…(sflivingtreasures. org). Other pieces of Mr. McGrath’s work are scattered through all of the dining areas.

Yummy Café emphasizes healthy Chinese food. As noted by John Vollertsen in The Santa Fe New Mexican: “A chef friend and I enjoyed everything we sampled, although we were surprised that most dishes seemed under-salted. I was relieved to hear the owner explain that he'd had major heart surgery and was infusing healthier cooking techniques into traditional dishes. We quickly realized that a dash of soy sauce was all that was needed to bring the dishes up to a ‘normal’ sodium level.” And I noted that the bottle of soy that graced our table was of the low sodium variety.

Again from The Santa Fe New Mexican: "’We have 'meat' from soy products,’ Chang said. ‘That's good for our customers who are vegetarian.’

“’The chef also goes easy on the oil and doesn't use MSG,’ Chang said, adding that he himself had a heart attack and needs to watch what he eats. ‘The right food is very important for health,’ he said. ‘We have brought that idea into our kitchen.’"

We both began our lunch with a cup of hot and sour soup that was crammed full of mushrooms, tofu, egg threads, and pork shreds. Heat lover that I am, I would have liked more “hot” but a few shakes of black pepper was all that was needed.

My lunch choice was the vegetarian Spicy Singapore Noodles, made with thin rice noodles, thin strips of carrot, bean sprouts, scallions, and scrambled eggs all flavored with yellow curry and a bit of chile paste. With the exception of fried rice noodles, most noodles found in Chinese cuisine tend to be cooked somewhat past al dente. This is definitely not to say that they are mushy. But they are soft enough to make a great contrast with the barely cooked carrots and bean sprouts.

When I placed my order, Mr. Chang warned me that the dish was spicy and I responded “No problem.” And he later returned to make sure that the dish wasn’t too spicy. To the contrary, it had just enough heat to get your notice, but not so much that the other flavors were hidden.

Chuck chose the Kung Pao Chicken lunch special which came beautifully presented in a bento box. The box included a small salad, which since it was topped with an orange dressing, I couldn’t taste and a cheese filled stuffed wonton which, since it was a small portion, I didn’t insist on sharing. There was also the ubiquitous egg roll. And what an egg roll! This is an item that I usually take one taste of and leave the remainder to return to the kitchen. This was an exceptional egg roll. The wrapper was thin and crisp and oil free.
But it was the vegetable filling that was amazing. So often, the vegetable mix has a sour flavor—especially the cabbage. Mr. Chang explained that the wrappers are specially made for the restaurant and they stuff and roll them fresh every day. It makes all the difference in the world.

The Kung Pao Chicken was also extraordinary. Small cubes of chicken were stir-fried with zucchini, green pepper, and onion in a savory sauce. The chicken was amazingly tender and Mr. Chang told us that the restaurant’s secret is to marinade the chicken with papaya—a natural meat tenderizer. “Papaya has enzymes that break down the collagen and other connective tissues in meats. It's that simple” ( Unlike that meat tenderizer in a shaker, the papaya doesn’t leave the meat mushy—just juicy and tender.

We so enjoyed the meal and the Chang’s hospitality that we returned a few days later.

To be continued tomorrow…

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