There has been a lot of grumbling among Westchester foodies of late regarding the demise of Chinese cuisine in the area. I am talking about true Chinese cooking without the inclusion of fusion. I mean, no sushi bar attached, no Asian confusion of multi-cultural national cuisines coming from one menu, prepared in one kitchen at the same time.
I am referring to what many of us of another generation knew as Cantonese cuisine, the old-time religion among Chinese food aficionados. Some of us may remember past stalwarts of this type of Chinese/American style fare served at Mamaroneck's Tung Hoy and Bob Poon's China Lion, and the original Hunan Village on Central Park Avenue in Yonkers. Now all are just distant memories.
Save for one: Lum Yen Chinese Restaurant, which has been at the corner of Mamaroneck Avenue and Boston Post Road, and operated by the same family for more than 37 years. Lum Yen harks back those delectable memories of Chinese/Cantonese cuisine of years ago, and oddly enough its tasty treasures are being rediscovered by a whole new generation of younger patrons. Walk in on any given evening and you will see customers young and old enjoying this bounty.
Years ago, I asked Lum Yen founders husband and wife John and Yolanda Lum what made their style of cooking so compelling (even addicting) to so many, and they simply said: "We use only the best quality ingredients, quickly sear them together in our big woks with our special herbs and spices, and add a big dose of pride in each of the dishes we cook."
Well said. The Lums were old-school going back to the '50s and '60s, when they came out of Canton, China. Amiable son Eugene Lum, who now runs the restaurant day-to-day, adds the intriguing notion that there is also a "Mother Sauce" his father had told him about years ago that serves as the basis of all Chinese dishes served here. Sort of like a well-prepared mother stock.
Some things do need to be updated on occasion, though. So, about three years ago, Eugene and his family undertook a major renovation of the restaurant inside and out, contemporizing the physical premises, but being careful not to tweak the menu too much. And it is all quite pleasant, the longtime staff friendly and knowledgeable (the current head chef has been here 18 years) trying to meet everyone's expectations with a pride you can see in their faces.
We snuck in early one Saturday evening, just at the start of the dinner hour, and we practically had the dining room to ourselves. I actually had several old-fashioned dishes already in mind as we surveyed the menu. I longed for that old-time flavor and hoped that it would still be there. And it was, delightlfully so!
Our half order of Chinese style barbeque spare ribs was sublime. Each rib plump, meaty and tender with that distinctive Cantonese flavor; we licked each right down to the bone. Our order of cold sesame noodles, another old favorite, was heavenly and refreshingly cool: lo mein noodles topped with diced peppers and a peanut-sesame sauce. We enjoyed the hot towel service after the rib course.
For a main course we opted for a platter of their popular General Tso's chicken, chunks of herb crusted chicken quickly seared with spicy peppers; and a side of spectacular dry sauteed string beans, freshly-prepared, still crunchy with a bit of garlic spice as well. The rice bowls were good foil for each dish, along with an occasional dash of hot Chinese mustard and sweet duck sauce.
If you want to go back in time even further, the menu still offers such Cantonese/American classics as: chop suey, egg foo young, chow mein and the ever popular moo shu wraps with hoisen sauce and choice of fillings. Next time, perhaps.
Portions were generous and by the time we got our doggie bags and our fortune cookies along with our check, the room had begun to fill up. We realized what we had been missing. The simple pleasures of Chinese/Cantonese cuisine are alive and well in Westchester and can be found with flavors fully intact at Lum Yen in Mamaroneck.
I urge you to rediscover its pleasures again for the first time, and bring the whole family.
Lum Yen Chinese Restaurant is located at 100 West Boston Post Rd., corner of Mamaroneck Avenue, Mamaroneck, across from Harbor Island Park. The restaurant is open for lunch, dinner and take-out 7 days a week. Delivery service available daily 5pm to 9pm; Friday and Saturday to 10pm. Price range at lunch: 4-course luncheon served noon to 3:30pm, $9.95 per person. Main courses from the dinner menu served all day: $11.95 to $37 for whole Peking Duck. Complete 4-course dinner sets from $12.95. Bar/lounge with seating. Major credit cards. Casual dress. Free parking long in the rear on Library Lane; municipal parking in front. Handicapped accessible. Banquet tables. Reservations suggested for larger groups. Phone: 914-698-6881. www.lumyen.com
(Morris Gut is a restaurant consultant for a former restaurant trade magazine editor. He has been tracking and writing about the dining scene in greater Westchester for over 25 years. He may be reached at: 914-235-6591. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)