When Steven Chin was living in Manhattan’s Chinatown, he would walk the two blocks to Big Wong on Mott Street for sam bo fan, also known as three treasure rice. Cooks would remove hanging ducks and char siu from a case and pile hunks of poultry, pork, and vegetables over rice, topping the dish with a fried egg. “When I was working for the New York Chinese History Project, it was a staple,” he says. “I went at least once a week.”
Chin knows his Cantonese barbecue. His grandfather, entrepreneur and community leader Chun Kong Chow, owned a grocery store that sold an array of lacquered meats, and Chin has spent his life learning from Chinese chefs around the country, from his college days working in a restaurant to his decades-long career as a journalist and storyteller. Chin will join their ranks when he opens YaYa on NE Alberta, serving Cantonese barbecue, dishes like wonton noodle soup and five-spice fried chicken, and — of course — three treasure rice.
Portland Monthly broke the news of the incoming restaurant, which Chin is opening with fast-casual restaurateur Micah Camden and seasoned NFL vet Ndamukong Suh. Chin has been talking about opening a Chinese restaurant for a decade, and transitioned from covering Asian Americans in the Bay Area to seeking culinary mentorship from longtime friend and big-deal chef Martin Yan. “I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese cooking,” he says. “Every 10 years, I do something very new and different. I moved to Portland and said, ‘I’m done with desk jobs; I’m going to pursue my dream.” It wasn’t until he was laid off from his job at Hapa Ramen during the pandemic that he began pursuing his own restaurant more seriously.
The menu at YaYa is split into three main categories: An assortment of rice plates topped with meats like char siu and five-spice fried chicken, fried rice, and sides like wontons in chili oil or scallion fried noodles. The foundation of the menu, however, will be the roast meats. Take, for example, the roast duck: the team will take Mary’s ducks, marinate the cavities, blow them up, sew them shut, scald them, and let them hang in a walk-in for two days, before they get hit with a glaze and dry overnight. They hang next to seasoned slabs of pork belly and par-cooked chickens, all rubbed in proprietary seasoning blends that involve five-spice. Then, during service, the restaurant’s meats get finished off in iCombi ovens or traditional roasting boxes in small batches to keep them fresh and hot, served alongside house-made pickles, rice, and sauces; the shop’s sauces are all made in house, from the apple hoisin for the char siu to the plum sauce for roast duck. “We kind of follow the Southern barbecue model — you take them as far as you can go (ahead of time), and then you’re just chopping and boxing,” Chin says. “After studying with some of these chefs, I got a real understanding of the traditional methods, and then reverse-engineered them to see if there was a way to make them better, or more efficient.”
In the mornings, Portlanders can walk past the windows of YaYa and see cooks prepping vegetable spring rolls and pork-and-shrimp wontons, before they begin slicing roasted meats when they open for dinner. Most of the restaurant’s square footage consists of kitchen space, so YaYa will stick to counter service, where customers can order food as well as sake, Chinese beer, and cups of oolong. While customers wait for their orders, they may notice the large, black-and-white portrait hanging on the wall; it’s a picture of Chin’s grandfather and his family, standing in front of his grocery store.
“It’s coming back around, exploring Chinese history. It’s so fulfilling to be doing this, sharing this food with a city that doesn’t have easy access to it,” he says. “It’s also really meaningful to open this place when there’s so much hate against Asians and so much vandalism against Asian-owned businesses. We want this to be a bright spot.”
YaYa will open Wednesday, June 23, at 1451 NE Alberta.
• YaYa [Official]
• YaYa, A New Micah Camden-Backed Joint, Will Bring Cantonese Barbecue to NE Alberta [PoMo]