Most Chinese restaurants have both takeout and in-house menus, and there's often little relationship between the two. Some, especially those that specialize in authentic Chinese food, have three menus, and some even a fourth, printed entirely in Chinese. Yami Garden does have two menus, plus one in Chinese only, as well as table cards in Chinese, but it differs from many others in one basic respect -- there are no dishes on any of the Chinese menus that can't be found on the English-only in-house menu. Even more atypically, most of them are on the takeout menu as well.
The location is also atypical, offering an authentic Chinese experience in Island Lakes instead of on Pembina. Yes, this one is a bit of a drive if you don't live in the area, but it's easier to find than those near-invisible addresses on Pembina -- just a straight drive out Bishop Grandin, and just past Lakewood Boulevard, a right turn onto Island Shore Boulevard, then immediately into a small strip mall. Et voil, you're there.
It's a spare but pleasant little place, where the most notable part of the decor is the enormous board of coloured photographs of the dishes offered, all of which look delectable.
And, as it happens, most of them are. Portions are copious and the prices moderate, with most main courses between $8.95 and $14.95. I did try such usual suspects as ginger beef (tender and nicely gingery) and a perfectly balanced hot-sour soup, and was also tempted by such old favourites as moo shu pork and the chow mein that looked and smelled lovely on a neighbouring table.
But what I had come for primarily was the cuisine of North China, much of which is spicy hot -- and for those who do like it hot, this place is heaven, its menu dotted with a profusion of two- and three-pepper symbols, which should be taken seriously.
You don't need to be a heat seeker to eat well here, though. Any menu that lists braised pork meatballs (which I know as Lion's Head) gets my attention, and these are excellent -- huge but still fluffy, slightly gingery, bathed in a light-brown sauce and garnished with baby bok choy. They were what had drawn me here in the first place and, fortunately, almost everything else I tried turned out to be at least as good.
Some were outstanding. Listed under cold dishes, for instance, are the stunning, finely shredded potatoes -- just barely cooked and moistened with hot sauce and vinegar. I also loved the mild, refreshing chunks of cucumber with minced garlic, and still regret not getting to the cold spicy noodles, the mysterious-sounding bean jelly in chili sauce, or the soy sauce combo of pork liver, beef, pork tongue, pork heart and pork slices.
One knockout main course was Yami Chicken -- a massive casserole of intensely flavourful nuggets of stewed, bone-in chicken and potatoes, combined with hand-pulled wide, chewy noodles. Another was the sautéed shredded pork with sweet (but not cloyingly so) bean sauce, which came with what looked like folded moo shu crepes but, when opened, turned out to be paper-thin tofu crepes, which were delicate in texture, but still strong enough to contain the pork filling.
Lamb with cumin turns up on many North Chinese menus, but unlike most versions I've had elsewhere, this one comes with a clear brown sauce. It's marked by one pepper only, but I'd rate ours a sinus-clearing two peppers. Another standout is Szechuan-style pan-fried shrimp, with both head and shells intact, but easy enough to chew, in a light, crunchy coating and wonderfully flavourful. It's marked with two peppers but isn't actually tongue-searing. Spicy cabbage had a nice smoky flavour, and although marked with only two peppers, had the potency of three.
Both the home-style tofu with green peppers, carrots and thin shreds of pork and a stir-fry of potatoes with green peppers and near-melting eggplant, are relatively mild dishes that may sound ho-hum, but aren't. The vinegar-tangy hot pot of pork ribs with pickled cabbage is certainly anything but ho-hum, and should appeal to anyone who likes East European sauerkraut soup. Stir-fried shrimp with vegetables (mostly greens) were without much flavour and were nothing more than passable. The same was true of spicy pork belly, with a texture that was too soft and a one-pepper sauce that tasted only of chili and not much else.
There are also a number of interesting small dishes. Two kinds of onion pancakes, for instance -- one crisp, wafer-thin and dotted with onions, the other plump and folded around a green onion filling. Also the intriguingly named English muffin, which isn't a muffin, of course, but a house-baked bun stuffed with a tasty pulled pork filling.
There are a few dumplings, as well. The only one I tried -- a pan-fried dumpling stuffed with pork, shrimp and chives -- was passable, albeit a tad doughy and under seasoned.
I can't predict the service since only a few others were present on my visits, but the young man who seemed to be the owner-manager, as well as one of the chefs, was friendly, attentive and superbly helpful about explaining the dishes.
Open 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.