Pretty much everybody has had a dim sum breakfast by now, the Cantonese dumplings wheeled along by cart-pushing waitresses, the great glassed-in trolleys of barbecued duck and grilled rice-noodle rolls. There are probably enough diners at dim sum restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley on a Sunday morning to fill the Anaheim Pond.
Northern Chinese breakfasts are a little harder to find. They don't tend to be served in restaurants with dining rooms as large as the decks of aircraft carriers; the protocol is a little more complicated than the point-and-eat ordering that suffices at even the most monolingual of dim sum restaurants. And for non-Chinese, the food can take a little getting used to--soy milk and piquant squid stew noodles may be slightly less accessible than barbecued pork rolls.
But Yung Ho, a Taiwanese cafe in a corner of a pan-Asian mini-mall that also includes a renowned Cantonese seafood house and the local branch of the many-tentacled Vietnamese noodle shop chain Pho 79, serves among the most delicious of breakfasts: flaky buns stuffed with sweet, simmered turnips, steamed buns filled with spiced pork or black mushrooms, crusty fried pies stuffed with pungent messes of sauteed leek tops, small steamed pork dumplings bursting with juice. On weekend mornings, the wait outside Yung Ho can stretch half an hour.
The dynamic of a northern Chinese breakfast is easy: you have some soy milk (unless you'd rather have a bowl of noodles), then you have some stuff to go with the soy milk. It's as simple as bacon and eggs.
Soy milk itself isn't much, really, a white fluid served either cold or hot, salted or sweetened, in bowls big enough to feed eight or nine people at least, but designed to be eaten by one--if you consume enough of the stuff, recent studies hint, you may scrub all the cholesterol out of your system. Neither luxurious in texture as the Cantonese doufu fa nor luscious as the hot, fresh tofu served in Korean specialty restaurants, the sugared soy milk at Yung Ho--and at most other northern-style Chinese restaurants--is a resolutely non-exotic substance, with a thin consistency that feels a little like nonfat milk in the mouth, and a chalky, vegetable blandness just like supermarket tofu, only sweeter.
Paired with the dumplings, though, the soy milk's flavor opens up, becomes less monotonous, tempers the richness of simmered stuffings and the greasiness of fried ones, marrying with the food the way cow's milk does with brownies. (Trust me: The salty milk is a less easily acquired taste.) I can't say that you'd ever bother eating soy milk on its own, but it is hard to imagine a Yung Ho breakfast without a bowl.
The traditional accompaniment to soy milk is a long twisted cruller, and Yung Ho does crullers very well, crisp and slightly chewy on the outside, fragrant with the smell of hot oil, giving way to an interior that is about 90% air.
For another buck or so, you can get the cruller smeared with a salty paste of pounded meat and wrapped inside a cylinder of sticky rice, which sounds kind of weird but has the kind of textural contrast you might expect from a great sushi roll. You probably know the Taiwanese cold case stuff from places like Mandarin Deli and Dumpling Master--cheese-like pressed bean curd, shredded tripe, tiny dried anchovies seasoned with chile, simmered pigs ear.
There are new flavors here, even for the jaded. Sticky rice, stuffed with stewed pork, steamed in a bamboo-leaf capsule and stingingly flavored with cinnamon, is not sweet but otherwise has the mouth-searing effect of a Atomic Fireball jawbreaker. In the beef noodle soup, a raw-vinegar sensation opens out into a subtle rush of chile heat and then the rich, shimmering pungency of what I imagine are long-simmered organ meats, a sequence of tastes almost biological in intensity. (The fried pork chop noodles are good too, sort of ordinarily greasy looking but with the subtle smokiness imparted only by an extremely hot wok.)
Yung Ho also has a small specialty in something they call "egg cakes," thin wheat cakes with scrambled eggs cooked into them, made stretchy with what I think must be taro, flecked with green herbs and fried. Oyster pancake is an egg cake stuffed with mollusks, like a tenderer version of the classic Chiu Chow oyster omelet, sauced with kind of a sweetened ketchup. Hubei doupi --which I like to imagine rhymes with "scooby dooby" but probably doesn't--is a ketchup-smeared egg cake formed into a dome over a mound of rice that conceals a smaller mound of fried pork. Hubei doupi may be sort of trailer-park Taiwanese cooking, but the stuff is at least as tasty as chicken-fried steak.
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Where to Go
Yung Ho Tou Chiang, 533 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (818) 570-0860. Open daily, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cash only. Beer. Lot parking. Takeout. Breakfast for two, food only, $5 to $10.
What to Get
Hubei doupei ; leek pie; salted cruller rice roll; pork chop fried noodle.