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A yen for Yen's Chinese Restaurant 

Meng Yen is working against family nomenclature. "Yen -- my last name -- means poor," he laughs. But his name should have been the Chinese word for hard-working.

Yen, as he is known to his devoted customers, has lived in Charlotte since 1989. He moved from his native Taiwan to the United States in 1979 and immediately started working in a Chinese restaurant ("You don't need to talk English in a kitchen.") After a decade he moved his young family south to avoid the cold winters on Long Island.

What many might have seen as tragedy, he made into an opportunity for himself, his wife and three children. His house on Long Island had burned and with his insurance money he could have either bought a house in Charlotte or a small restaurant. He chose the latter and opened the eponymous Yen's Chinese Restaurant in 1990. With his success, he bought the house two years later.

Yen's is not a shiny new spot in a trendy neighborhood. This is an older restaurant in an older strip center off Monroe Road in southeast Charlotte. Yen, the eatery, has 11 tables, the size of an establishment Yen and his family can handle. Not to say the restaurant isn't comfortable; it is. You just won't get atmosphere. There are water spots on the ceiling, and the photos on the walls look like they've been there since 1990. His wife and a son are on-hand; Yen is the cook. Tables are set with the Chinese 12-year calendar place mat (which always seems to reveal I'm eating with the wrong people).

But regulars are called by their first names as they enter, and takeout orders often include time for family updates and a friendly wave goodbye. What attracts them? Exactly what will hook you, too: lots of good food at low prices, precisely what Charlotteans' economy-shocked wallets need now.

The logistics of running a small, family-owned restaurant don't cramp the style of output from the kitchen. The menu is a lengthy list of Chinese favorites -- from Moo Goo Gai Pan to Americanized, hybridized lo/chow mein. Sure there's sweet-and-sour pork, sa-cha beef and General Tso's chicken. But other dishes are lush and indiscreet with their boisterous taste.

We asked young Yen what was the most "authentic" item on the menu. He smiled and reported that the kitchen will cook anything. But then, when we insisted, he suggested the Ma La Chicken, which turns out to be a spunky Szechuan dish packing both heat and brash flavor. Our American instincts overpowered us and we ordered the duck flambé, flamed at the table causing the room to murmur and stare. This duck, with its wonderfully gamey sweet meat, is a spotlight stealer.

But it's not so much the dishes -- the prices that are the real deal. Soups are a steal at $1.25: The best is the hot-and-sour. A nicely crisped quartet of sausage dumplings please; the crispy spring roll is too small to share, but, hey, it's only $1.25. The duck was $12.95 and could easily serve two. Most entrees are well under $10. The Moo Shu Pork with four pancakes is eight bucks.

For many years, Yen's was a favorite with CL critics and readers alike in our "Best of" issues. Sometimes, food writers and food lovers tend to focus on the newest and trendiest place and overlook or forget some people who are still doing a remarkably good job.

"When my customers first came in, I was a good-looking young man. Now customers come in and find an old man," Yen quips. But then he reveals his secret. "The customers are my friends. They only need to spend $8 and $9 for an entrée. This is not a fancy place where my customers would come only once a month. My customers come every week."

What about his "authenticity"? Yen said that many Americans think they know Chinese food, but the truth is they only know the Chinese food of this country. He said many Chinese dishes "must have some kind of special flavor to make the dish. There are certain hot peppers you must use in Szechuan dishes, in a Szechuan hot bean sauce. Other dishes require special vegetables. If I have the stuff I make it right away. But sometimes it's hard to get." Yen's rule is that first- and second-time customers order what they want then on the third visit he talks to them about their preferences.

My only quibble at Yen's was my fortune (the fortune cookie: another American invention), which was the same as my dining companion's. But, then, maybe our good fortune was reacquainting ourselves with Yen's.

Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please).

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