Despite its happy-go-lucky name, Dai Wah Yummy City is a very serious place. No red dragons with glimmering eyes sprawl across the wall. No potted plants perch on pedestals. There are no futuristic light fixtures, nor wildly uniformed waiters in pastel waistcoats, either—just a big, boxy room with white walls, made to seem even barer by maximum wattage. The only decorations are a floral mural on the rear wall that seems like the artist ran off after half executing it, and a giant plasma TV dangling from the ceiling. Rather than showing chop-socky videos, it follows international events. On our first visit, President Obama was receiving Chinese president Hu Jintao at the White House as we ate, which lent gravitas—if not gravy—to a superlative meal.
The patrons of Yummy City tend to be well-off immigrants who have moved out of Chinatowns into the front-yarded swaths of middle-class housing in Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst. The restaurants they patronize aren’t concentrated in one area, but scattered throughout the neighborhood, and they tend to be high-quality, but bare-bones. The tables at Yummy City are mainly gigantic round affairs, and the waiter had some difficulty finding a place for our tiny party of four. All around us sat extended families, the parental generation chattering in Chinese, while the fully assimilated kids amused themselves with computing devices in apparent disdain of what their elders were saying and eating.
The menu features exactly what the adults crave: Cantonese food with Hong Kong flourishes, plus dishes from other regions of China that have been popularized and added to the southern Chinese canon. Bean curd with minced pork Szechuan-style ($7.95) is one, a version of ma po tofu that has been sadly stripped of its chile heat. It’s good anyway, the sauce rich with fermented beans and opulent quantities of ground pork. “Chow mei fun w. Singapore style” is another, thin noodles laced with curry powder that brings a slight burn to the lips. Chinese-American inventions like egg foo young appear, too, probably put on the menu because the neighborhood’s elderly Italian-American residents who stumble in expect it.
Like the unadorned room, the plates arrive with no garnish and even less ceremony. But the excellence of the ingredients and level of execution prove to be startlingly high. Fried crisp, a whole flounder ($16.95) comes clad in chopped scallions, with nothing other than its vastness to make it attractive. The waiter deftly deboned the fish in one minute flat, then used a spoon to cut it into swatches. The flesh was sweet, and afterward we eagerly fell on the head, tail, and bones—which had been rendered crunchy by frying, like potato chips. I’d put this fish up against any at Le Bernardin.
Nor was the oblong heap of jellyfish ($8.95) composed of colorless and flavorless tendrils, as expected. Brown from marination and scattered with toasted sesame seeds, the sustainable sea creature detonated with oceanic flavor. It’s good to begin a Cantonese meal with soup, and our choice on another visit was fish maws with crab ($13.95), a limpid broth floating small white cubes carved from fleecy flotation bladders (that’s the “maws” part). The soup was further enriched with snatches of real crab—no surimi here. Our waiter tossed a bottle of bright red vinegar on the table and demanded, via vigorous gestures, that we pour it into the soup. It changed the broth from ho-hum to intriguingly sour, and the carmine color delighted the eye.
Low prices encourage you to make every meal at Yummy City a banquet, with voluminous Styrofoam containers providing the next day’s dinner. Make sure you consult the carryout menu, the dishes pictured on the back of that carryout menu, and the glossy main menu to get your full range of choices—there’s scant overlap among the three. Your banquet should include spicy clams ($10.95, carryout picture menu), sprightly bivalves swimming in a dark gingery broth; dai wah chicken ($8.95, carryout menu), an inscrutable dome of skinless parts sealed in translucent corn-starch skin; and braised yee noodles with black mushroom ($8.95, main menu). It may make you forget ramen entirely.
Our meal concluded that first time with a huge plate of very sweet oranges. We sat on the edge of our chairs, well satisfied, waiting for the fortune cookies to drop. They never did. It was just another way of Yummy City flaunting its seriousness.