For more than two decades, Yan’s Chinese Restaurant on the corner of West Cowlitz Way and Long Avenue has sold dishes rooted in Southern Chinese cooking with Americanized flavors like chow mein.
The dishes are ubiquitous with Chinese-American restaurants like egg rolls, crab puffs and egg foo young, which first made waves in the U.S. as early as the mid-1800s, when the flavors of Chinese immigrants began to meld with American cooking and skyrocketed to popularity around the 1920s.
Co-owner Mark Yan said he took over the 6,000-square-foot Kelso restaurant in 1998 after working for a Cantonese restaurant in Portland. He said he sells tweaked recipes he learned over the years, like chow mein in the cooking style of Southern China, where noodles are flash fried or pan fried to be crispy. He said his chow mein is typically different from the kind people find in “the big city.”
Yan serves chop suey, a stir-fried dish of meat and vegetables widely believed to be developed in America and based on Chinese flavors.
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He also serves egg rolls — shredded vegetables and meat wrapped in an egg-based dough and deep-fried — and egg foo young — a pan-fried disc of eggs, vegetables, meat or seafood served with homemade brown gravy and rice.
“Egg foo young has been around a long time, and people still love it,” Yan said. “We make good gravy.”
Yan said he left China in 1989 soon after high school for better opportunities in the U.S., but the pandemic, and now rising inflation, is making his dream of being a business owner more difficult.
Yan said he cannot open the lounge of his restaurant because he cannot find staff to hire, and currently only family members work at the eatery. He said he used to serve food until midnight when the lounge was open, but now the restaurant closes at 8:30 pm
Over the years, customers have remained loyal, he added, though their preferences have changed. Yan said today people like spicier meals, like meat served in Szechuan sauce, which is made of soy sauce and chili sauce.
His wife and co-owner Sara Yan said regulars frequent the eatery, looking for signature dishes like their crispy chow mein noodles.
“The people in here are like family” she said.
On June 22, Kim Fitch of Louisiana said she picked up a family dinner while visiting her sister in Kelso as an easy way to feed a large group. Customers grab takeout, but the restaurant also seats about 100, Mark Yan said.
Providing more affordable, multicourse meals for families was a way Chinese-American restaurants competed for customers in the decades following World War II, according to Andrew Coe’s 2009 book “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.”
At Yan’s, people can grab one of four family dinners from $14.50 to $16.50 that feature roughly seven items like barbecue pork, sweet and sour chicken and pork fried rice. The eatery also offers 16 dinner combination meals from $11.95 to $15.50. During lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, people can choose one of 25 items, like broccoli beef or chicken chow mein, with an egg roll, crab puff and pork fried rice for $10.50.
Mark Yan said the menu variety and friendly service maintains a faithful clientele.
“Customers keep coming back,” he said.
Signature Fare is a series featuring local restaurants’ signature menu items and prints every other Wednesday.
Contact Daily News reporter Hayley Day at 360-577-2541 or [email protected] for possible inclusion in the series.