This week’s restaurant: Yangtze Chinese Restaurant, 126 N. Euclid Ave. (at B), Ontario.
Yangtze has been a fixture of downtown Ontario since 1961 and, with the demise of Jong’s and Chung King, it’s the oldest Chinese restaurant in the Inland Valley. Back then, Chinese food was considered exotic; it was one of the few foreign cuisines available in the area, along with Mexican and (oooh) Italian. Now you can get kung pao chicken and a dozen glazed at any number of local donut shops.
Not much has changed at Yangtze except the prices, from what I can gather. Step inside and you feel you’ve stepped back in time. The interior retains the slatted wood walls, the slender hanging lamps, the avocado booths and the 3-D dioramas that radiate a 1960s ambiance. Author Charles Phoenix likes to say that ’60s icons James Bond and Sophia Loren could dine there and not look out of place.
Mr. Gin, the founder, is gone, but Mrs. Gin, one of my favorite people in Ontario, still greets customers and works the cash register. The waitresses have been there for decades. So have some of the customers.
Now, as for the food. I had dinner there once, perhaps six years ago, before an Ontario council meeting. It was, shall we say, not to my taste. I returned a couple of weeks ago for lunch only because Phoenix was in town and suggested we meet there. He told me he hadn’t eaten at Yangtze in decades.
He cleaned his plate, I ate half of my shrimp chow mein. It would not surprise me to learn that the cook had opened a can of Chung King vegetables into a pan, tossed in a few canned shrimp, cornstarch and some MSG, heated it and put it on a plate. To my mind, retro charm can go only so far.
Yet there are those who dote on Yangtze. Generations of locals had their first taste of Chinese food there and its old-school American take on the cuisine still meets their needs. It’s the food they grew up with, cooked the way it’s supposed to taste. Some of the regulars drive from miles away.
Others barely leave. An older gentleman a couple of booths away from us at lunch was eating a steak, and when he left, the waitress cheerfully told him, “See you tonight.”