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Restaurateur George Yu Talks Cantonese Food and Sleep Deprivation

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Photos by Clarissa Wei
Photos by Clarissa Wei

Take a sizzling platter of French-style filet mignon cubes, tender and sautéed with chilies and basil leaves. Pour the cubes over a bowl of white rice and pair it with garlic-heavy green beans. Order a bowl of wonton soup for the table to share and maybe their platter of Bolognese pasta, baked with a thick layer of cheese on the top -- perfect for late night gluttony. There's something for everyone at Tasty Garden.

Tasty Garden is a Hong Kong-style café, a special class of Chinese diner great for its low prices, large portions and Cantonese-meets-Western-style dishes. The restaurant (there are four locations now) has been in business for nearly ten years and is on the higher end of the Chinese-restaurant-in-America spectrum in terms of quality and customer service. Its rapid expansion is proof of that: a fifth branch, located in Irvine, is slated for an August opening.

Sitting in a booth at the Monterey Park location, George Yu toys with his smartphone as his seafood suppliers chat about business in front of a spread of noodles. Yu is a Guangdong native who immigrated to the States 25 years ago. His English is limited and he's reluctant to talk about anything that isn't strictly business-related.

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"I had a interest in culinary studies when I was in China," he says in Mandarin. "I liked to cook." In 2005, Yu opened up the first Tasty Garden branch in Alhambra. "In the beginning I didn't really sleep," he recalls. "It was a lot of pressure."

Yu had worked for 15 years in a Chinese restaurant in the area before he was confident enough to open his own branch. "It's difficult not knowing that much English," he says. "But I just take it one step at a time."

He prides himself in keeping culinarily up to date. Every six months, based on customer recommendations, he refreshes his menu with new items. Yu tries to use American-made products when possible. "Our price point is a bit higher because of that but it's worth it," he says. In his Monterey Park location, the restaurant closes every night at 4 a.m. because he wants to cater to the post-partying crowd in the San Gabriel Valley.

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As for the food, Yu recommends the following: walnut shrimp, kung pao chicken, gui fei ji (marinated chicken named after a imperial Chinese concubine), and the filet mignon cubes. He's particularly proud of the restaurant's Hong Kong egg waffle, an elusive snack found in only a few places in Los Angeles made with flour, eggs, evaporated milk, sugar, starch and baking powder. It's cooked in a special waffle iron and comes out looking like bubble wrap, the sides slightly crisp. "Other venues put too much egg in it," he says. The recipe, developed by Yu himself, seems to be working. The egg waffle is one of the restaurant's most popular menu items.

His advice for restaurateurs in the San Gabriel Valley? Listen to the chefs.

"Listen to them, use good ingredients and quality meat," he says. With that in mind,
Yu's hope is to expand his chain ever further. As he says, compared to other Chinese regional cuisines, "More people like Cantonese food. It's just much more versatile because of the Western influences."

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