I appreciate when restaurants resist the seductive pull of trends, refusing to "bacon-ize" the entire menu or pelt unsuspecting burgers with fried eggs. At the same time, I understand the appeal of the urbane establishments that do embrace culinary fads. Roasted Brussels sprouts served in crafty paper cones, Mason-jar desserts and herb-dusted popcorn elicit chime-like aahs and make for stellar Instagram photos. But sometimes you want none of that. Sometimes, you just want steamed rice in a well-worn red pot.
That's where Yu's Garden comes in. Neighbored by crowd-drawing Crab Hut and Tofu House, the Taiwanese eatery (4646 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa) is unimpressive on the outside: Its stained, pale-yellow façade doesn't demand attention. Though an improvement, the interior feels like a high-school cafeteria, with its expressionless white walls and personality-starved setup. Décor-wise, it's got nothing on all the new, fashionable restaurants trying to look like Anthropologie stores. But I respect that. It means that, ultimately, you'll be drawn in by the grub and not by the ambience.
The scallion pancakes, or cong you bing, are alone worth a visit. Crisp and flaky, the pan-fried flatbread balances a crunchy exterior with a doughy, chewy interior. Plus, the lightly golden treat is cut into easy-to-eat, two-bite triangles that ooze just enough oil. Let the scallion pancake follow in the footsteps of Indian naan by using it to scoop up curry and rice.
In fact, the chicken curry and scallion pancake make a fine pair—swirl a hunk of the flatbread through the flavorful sauce for a winning combo. Though not the most visually stunning dish, the chicken curry at Yu's Garden is solid. Chunks of bell pepper and onion bring texture to the fragrant curry. Disappointingly, the lumps of chicken are often gummy and gelatinous, but they don't make the curry any less of a belly-warming comfort.
If you're not in the mood for glitches, though, go for the kung pao beef, which is easily the strongest dish we ordered. Tender, buttery beef pieces combine with crunchy peanuts for a satisfying contrast of textures. More importantly, it's not tongue-scorchingly spicy, so you can savor the more gently flavored dishes that follow.
The cabbage and pork dumplings are so mildly flavored that they almost don't taste like anything. I had high hopes for the chubby morsels, but found them bland and forgettable. The watery filling tasted flat, and the dough could barely keep it together, breaking apart before it reached my mouth. Other slipups include the tired, slow service that proves especially painful if you arrive hungry. After seating ourselves, we waited a few minutes before the servers acknowledged us.
Still, I admire Yu's Garden for understanding its identity and sticking with it. Too many restaurants try blending tradition with trend in a panicked attempt to appear relevant. I have a feeling Yuís Garden will never tread down that treacherous path. The Taiwanese joint's sturdy, time-tested fare might not be as Instagram-worthy as duck-confit poutine or pulled-pork sliders, but it's just as delicious. And, it's in it for the long haul.