Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Yum Yum


Behind the old curtains and beneath the old sign, Yum Yum Chinese Restaurant was actually open and serving dinner.





When I was a kid, I always loved traveling down to Reds games from our home in the suburbs. It wasn’t just the baseball I was excited about but the chance to catch glimpses of and be in the city. As we slogged through traffic on Interstate 75, my non-Cincinnati-native father would point out historical sites that he had learned about in his adopted home. We’d talk about the history of the Crosley Building, and ten-year-old me became enamored with the story of the incomplete Cincinnati Subway as we passed its shuttered tunnels. Occasionally, we’d cut through Downtown to avoid the highway traffic. One particular memory that has always stood out was seeing this abandoned Chinese restaurant from the car windows. In a time well before I was into exploring and photographing abandoned locales, history, and fading advertisements, the old sign and lettering of the closed eatery caught my eye.

“EAT AS IF YOU WERE in CHINA at YUM YUM CHINESE RESTAURANT.” 

My understanding of Chinese food at the time was limited to a now defunct buffet that my family often patronized in the mid to late ‘90s. When I first saw the exterior of “Yum Yum,” I was in absolute disbelief that a place offering such wonderful food could be closed.


As I grew up and found myself exploring the city on a consistent basis, I’d pass the entrance to Yum Yum on occasion, always curious but never looking deeper. Then one day circa 2005 or 2006, 5chw4r7z pointed out (via a now unfortunately lost blog post) that the place wasn’t, in fact, abandoned. Rather, it was in business and had been for several decades.


I immediately resolved to go, but never made visiting much of a priority until a decade later when Phil reminded me of the place. We tried to stop in for lunch, finding the door locked. Yelp reviews existed and Google had hours posted, but we later found that the chances to visit were apparently limited to slim timeframes: Tuesday through Saturday only, between the hours of 6 and 9 p.m.

Finally, in the early summer of this year, Phil and I tried to visit again. We were joined by Travis, someone who had experienced Yum Yum once. The restaurant is a mysterious spot, but occasionally traveled by those who live in the urban core. Finally, I was going to glimpse behind the drawn, dusty curtains. 

“Dine in or carryout?” the gentleman in the lobby asked. “Dine in,” we replied as I took in the surroundings: an old cash register, yellowed photographs with rounded corners on the wall, dusty items encased in glass, knickknacks lining the counters.


“Only carryout tonight,” our host immediately but politely replied with a smile, causing us to wonder why he offered the seated option in the first place.


“Sure, carryout is fine,” we replied, disappointed that we wouldn’t get a chance to see the rest of the place but content to try the food.

The man went to grab a menu as a woman emerged from the kitchen.


“Out of rice. No dinner tonight,” she smiled and said.

Foiled once more, we thanked them for their time and resolved to return.


We developed a new plan: calling ahead to make a reservation, ensuring they were open and serving. We were unsure if the phone number would work. It did. The voice on the receiving end seemed a little surprised, and we were firmly reminded that the place was "cash only." Phil, Travis, Ryan, and I arrived on time, once again in the curious confines of Yum Yum’s lobby after we stepped around the paint can that caught drips from the beleaguered air conditioner and then through the wooden door.


A western played over the air on an older, knob-operated television adapted with an HD antenna. The ominous music of the program clashed with the curiosity of being in this place. Our now-familiar host didn’t seem to notice us as we entered. He greeted us with that same smile once he did see us, and he asked once again if we needed takeout. He ushered us through the back door after he acknowledged the reservation made an hour earlier.


The lobby gave way to a hallway lined with old photographs of former Cincinnati politicians, newscasters, and celebrities. A door led to the first dining room, a dark space with multiple refrigerators illuminated only by the glow of Christmas lights and a Molson Beer sign.


We were led up a small set of stairs into the main dining room. Stylized lanterns encased bulbs that partially illuminated the maroon carpet, red tablecloths, and the wood panel walls that support the drop ceiling.


It took a moment for our eyes to adjust. Our table was set with napkin-wrapped silverware and a paper mat that described the Chinese Zodiac. So far, Yum Yum felt like any other Chinese restaurant. Handwritten “cash only” signs adorned nearby tables as our host fetched partially frozen glasses of water for us from a nearby refrigerator. Via speakers: we heard local classical radio station WGUC play Johannes Brahms at a volume that allowed for whispering. Why we were whispering, I couldn’t quite figure out. We were the only patrons in what seemed like a charming, almost perfectly preserved time capsule of the ‘70s. I think we were all in disbelief that we had finally made it inside and to a table; somewhat nervous about what this would be like.


The menus showed their age: yellowed and torn with handwritten adjustments to reflect price changes over the decades. A black and white copy of an article from the now defunct Cincinnati Post rested in the back of each menu; the article highlighted the five-year-old maitre d' and heralded the arrival of Szechuan food, a new, exotic dining experience in the city.


We glanced over the menu, debating if we should consider the “dinner for two,” the “dinner for four,” or individual dishes. Some items had long been crossed out. Peking duck was unavailable because it requires at least one day’s advance notice before arrival. I opted for the “Yum Yum Ding Dong Chicken,” a “spiced chicken dish, popular in China especially where people dote on spicy foods.” It’s an entree that is “delicately prepared at Yum Yum” and features a “sprinkle of peanuts and a variety of special authentic Chinese ingredients.” Phil followed suit, Ryan opted for the “Yum Yum Ding Dong Pork,” and Travis selected the “Szechuan Beef.” We also asked for a couple of egg rolls after our server confirmed that we have no issues or allergies associated with peanuts.


As our host/server ventured back through the dark toward the kitchen, I tried to make some photographs of the place. I adjusted my Canon’s ISO level to frustrating heights in an effort to cut through the darkness; I relented and used the built-in flash when all compositions seemed hopeless.


Only a few tables were set for potential visitors. Most others and the former bar were relegated to supporting tools that aided the server. A painting of a clipper in rough, dark seas adorned the wall, fans whirred and focused on keeping us cool, and a few more refrigerators hummed across the space. 

Our egg rolls arrived. The rest of the party cut in with forks and drenched their appetizers in sauce served from a communal, metal bowl. I simply grabbed my deep-fried treat and started dinner. Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” seemed to sync up with dramatic effect over the radio. As the song reached a crescendo, we were finally eating at the mysterious Yum Yum.


I’m no food aficionado, nor am I a chef, or picky. I’ve had better egg rolls at the takeout place built into a repurposed Arby’s down the street from my apartment. Still, Yum Yum’s were good, fresh, and warm from the kitchen. Our conversation turned from the excitement of being here to normal exchanges. The phone rang from beyond the walls, presumably for takeout orders that seemed to make up the majority of the establishment’s business.


I ventured to find the restroom, heading through a back door and into a hallway lined with an old couch and Chinese newspapers. I found a clean facility with older fixtures but no water. The sink was dry and so was the toilet. Although the lights were on, this probably wasn’t where I was supposed to relieve myself of happy hour beers from earlier. I asked our host where to find solace and he led me back through the lobby to another washroom.


A mop and cleaning supplies crowded the space and an old soap dispenser had long been replaced by bottles. A yellowed sign on the wall above the urinal gave strict instructions and hinted at what once must’ve been a frequent frustration for the person who cleaned this area:

“Please take your time and put every drop into the urinal not on the floor. THANK YOU VERY MUCH”


I followed the instructions to a T, washed my hands, and headed back toward the lobby. The scent of our meals being prepared filled the air as a slight haze from the cooking floated near the ceiling. Light quickly flashing up behind a tempered glass window followed the sounds of pans clanking on the stove. I returned to my friends in the dining room as our host ushered in two more guests.


The gentlemen were seated at a table near ours, and we subconsciously hushed our conversation as this new pair sat down. One of the men described the menu to his partner with familiarity. The addition of more guests seemed to break whatever hesitations there were among our group; it reminded us that no matter what the outside appearance had indicated, Yum Yum was just like any other eatery. Maybe Yum Yum wasn’t mysterious after all. If the Yelp reviews, anecdotes from friends, and 5chw4r7z’s post hadn’t made it clear over the years, people clearly knew about this place, even if it wasn’t well known. I suddenly felt a bit guilty about how I was viewing our experience. I had come here not solely in search of a meal but a story of sorts. I wanted to get a peek behind the dusty windows and drapes beneath the faded sign out front. I was making photographs like a tourist, taking things in with the impersonality of someone looking for “likes” on Instagram. So I sat down and I shut up, content to just take in the moment and the experience of being there.


Our food arrived, delivered by our host and his wife, the dynamic duo that have apparently been behind this operation for decades. They described the dishes with a smile, taking care to note the details of what was in the metal serving trays above our plates. “Enjoy,” they said, and we did.


My chosen spicy level of 7 had always seemed like a conservative, safe bet at other Chinese spots around town, never gleaning much of a reaction. I wasn’t sure if I was sweating from the lack of air conditioning or the heat of my food, but Yum Yum provided an excellent mix of spice and taste.

“More rice?” our host inquired as he refilled our waters.

“How is it?” he followed up.

“Great” was the consensus as I tried to eat around the mushrooms in my delicious concoction of vegetables, peanuts, and chicken doused in some sort of tasty sauce.


After the trays and plates were cleared, I watched our host head to a nearby refrigerator and grab four stereotypical fortune cookies from inside. He took care to process our checks, cash, and tips individually while I cracked my desert open to reveal prepackaged wisdom:

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” 

We thanked the proprietors for the meal and hospitality. Our host declined a portrait or the chance to speak further about his establishment’s history, which was fine. I was content in knowing that a place I had once mistaken as abandoned was very much alive and well and that I had the chance to finally see it for myself. We glanced one last time at the eclectic facade and then walked over to a local watering hole, sipping beer in a back room where what we had just experienced was still the topic of conversation.


The consensus was that the food was good. Not the best any of us had ever had, but delicious nonetheless. The atmosphere of Yum Yum’s preserved era had been and still was the main attraction. Phil laughed and declined choosing it as a spot for a rehearsal dinner, but we seemed to agree that as long as you went with the right people, Yum Yum was a sight, place, and experience to behold. It’s a “hole-in-the-wall” in maybe the truest sense—something well off the radar of local food critics and self-described taste aficionados. It’s an enigma, a place that makes very little effort, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to seem (and frankly, to be) open. Ryan reflected that it seemed “like a normal place when other people came in.” He was right: the allure shrouding the room and our curiosity was relaxed when we were joined by other guests. Travis noted the historical context clues, how the menu had to once be typed out with detailed explanations well before dishes such as “Sweet and Sour Chicken” and “Szechuan Beef” were familiar mainstays. In the area of the city it sits in, the building seemed to have dodged the rise of modern revitalization, surrounded by so many other economic efforts. It’s a bastion of a different time, a previous incarnation of Cincinnati.

I loved it.

- Ryan, Travis, and myself dining at Yum Yum. Photograph by Phil Armstrong.


Yum Yum apparently opened in 1975 under the ownership of Thomas Li. It was frequently billed as the “first” to bring “Chinese” and “Szechuan” food to Cincinnati. It’s been in continuous operation ever since, although its name and notoriety seemed to have faded from the local press after the first few years of initial curiosity. Ecstatic reviews were eventually eclipsed by the rapid proliferation of similar establishments, but Yum Yum was still recognized via a displayed certificate from Yelp.com in 2016 as being “a place” that “people love.”

From my understanding, Yum Yum epitomized what Chinese restaurants used to be: unique, full-service dining known for great service rather than the common and casual takeout spots and buffets of today. You can still find that more “traditional” version of “Americanized Chinese Food” at renowned, popular sit-down establishments around this city, but Yum Yum is truly something else. Back in the dining room with no windows, it’s a special and unique place that seems to serve as a time machine, a nearly perfectly preserved monument to a previous era. It sits on a quiet block outside of the main corridors of activity and eateries, keeping on in what seems like the only manner it has ever known.

10 comments:

  1. I so love this story and the photographs. It truly is a blast from the past and I enjoyed your story, as always.

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    1. Thanks, Sophia! I hope you're well. Out in Fairfield, you guys have one of the BEST spots in the city, though - Mr. Lee's!

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  2. What a great story and place. I love these hidden gems. Also Lee's is fantastic!

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    1. Thanks, GoofyRobo! Lee's...that lo mein...just magical. Also in Fairfield: HOUSE. OF. BANGKOK. Best crispy Pad Thai in all of Cincy.

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    2. I love Lee's! A friend of mine turned me on to that place late last year!

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    3. Kevin, if you're into Thai food at all, go check out House of Bangkok up that way.

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  3. I absolutely love this story and the photos associated with it! I have seen this restaurant a time or two and have photographed it once and I always wondered if it was open also. I'm glad to see that it is still in business and I might just stop by the next time I'm in Cincinnati to give it a try! Also this place is definitely what in my opinion gives any city character since it is like a time capsule, has a history, and overall it has an eclectic character.

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    1. Hey Terry, thanks! Definitely check it out if you get a chance. I'd be curious to hear what you think.

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  4. I have walked by that place at least a hundred times throughout the years. I'd always think to myself what it may have been like when it was open years ago. I had no idea. This is great and now I feel the need to experience Yum Yum. Great story and photos.

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    1. Definitely go check it out! It won't be the best "Chinese" food you'll ever have, but it's one helluva experience.

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