Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10. (Thanks to Caroline Chen for additional reporting.)
Anyone unfamiliar with Cantonese food will find it hard to feel lost ordering at Yuet Lee. In fact, it'd be hard to lose sight of Yuet Lee -- you could probably spot that electric-green exterior through the fog from the top of Coit Tower. Newcomers can't -- and shouldn't -- ignore the list of the restaurant's "10 famous dishes" taped up next to the kitchen window. Steamed oysters on the shell, make the list, as well as spare ribs, clams with black bean sauce, and the ultrafamous salt-and-pepper squid, which I used to make midnight runs for back in the 1990s.
Sam Yu has owned Yuet Lee for 33 years, operating out of the same location. Yu is the rounder, smiling guy in all the photos of famous people, chilling with with Nicolas Cage, competitive eater Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, and Jackie Chan. Famous people eat famous food.
Rice Plate Journal's $10 limit blocked me for the first time since I've taken on this project. Most of Yuet Lee's entrees fall in the $10 to $12 range, with the famous dishes costing a little to a lot more. But at the back of the menu is a list of rice plates, dishes so simple the chef can knock them out in 90 seconds and return to the table where his co-workers are kibitzing, while CNN's talking heads lecture the uninterested from a television hanging from the ceiling. Even on a quiet Thursday afternoon, Yuet Lee never feels sleepy.
The curls of squid with tender greens we ordered were a little tough and underseasoned. But the shrimp with scrambled eggs made up for it. The eggs were scrambled into starch-thickened chicken stock at the last minute so they formed a glossy sauce that looked as if it contained thousands of shreds of yellow silk. The sauce covered a plate of rice, blending together as I scooped it up with a fork. Bright green peas popped between the teeth, echoes of the fat, juicy, coral-colored shrimp. Yuet Lee's shrimp with scrambled eggs may not have been famous, but it still hit the spot.
Yuet Lee: 1300 Stockton (at Broadway), 982-6020.