Yan Can Multiply 

Fast food goes gourmet.

The line leading up to the counter at Pleasant Hill's new Yan Can restaurant stretches out the door. While you wait to order and be seated, you can peruse giant menu placards or watch a screen overhead that shows a montage of shots from founder Martin Yan's famous Yan Can Cook shows. Here is Yan cavorting around a Buddhist temple; there is Yan slicing up vegetables with his characteristic toothy grin. Yan presents elaborate dishes to the camera, dishes you'll never get a chance to eat unless you buy one of the cookbooks on display next to the TV screen.

The sleek restaurant, decorated in rich reds, golds, and celadon greens, teems with staff. The host works the line, asking party sizes and then finding tables to fit. Once assigned a table, you place your order with one of the teens working the register. Behind the teens, a bevy of cooks clank and stir away at their woks, while a couple of expediters run back and forth.

After ordering, you pick up drinks and silverware and move to your table, where dipping sauces, chopsticks, and in our case, appetizers already await. Teams of waiters scurry through the crowds, delivering dishes on red-rimmed black bowls and plates, and shooting off getting-to-know-you-questions at one another ("So what high school do you go to?") as they bustle around. For a restaurant barely a month old, the routine is smooth and quick, and we find ourselves swept up in excitement. This is not just the birth of a new restaurant, we tell each other: This is the prototype of a new chain aiming at that hotter-than-hot market, "fast casual."

Yan Can is a joint venture of Favorite Restaurants Group, based in Hong Kong, and Yum! Brands, the corporation that owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. The restaurant in Pleasant Hill is the test site for a potential chain of two thousand or more restaurants. With freshly stir-fried food and some tableside service, Yan Can sits squarely in the fast-casual camp.

Fast casual (or "quick casual," as it's sometimes called) occupies the middle ground between fast food (or "quick service") and sit-down (or "full-service") restaurants. Like most other fast-casual chains, Yan Can strives to appeal to consumers willing to pay more for higher quality, more healthful food delivered at the same speed as the fast-food chains.

Martin Yan has filmed series all over Asia in the past decade, and Yan Can's menu shoots for twentysome Best Hits of Asian Cooking, focusing mainly on Chinese but giving props to Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese. Appetizers and soups can be followed by entrée-sized salads, noodle dishes, grilled meats, and "Wok Favorites," all made to order.

The wok-fried preparations can be made with beef, chicken, shrimp, or tofu and vegetables. They're divided into "Discoverers" like kung pao, "Seasoned Travelers" like Mongolian, and "Nesters" like sweet and sour. The top-of-the-line shrimp dishes cost $8.95, while most of the other dishes hover between $6 and $7.

The appetizers that preceded us to the table go quickly. Our crispy potstickers, thin wonton skins wrapped into half-moons around a flavorful chicken-ginger filling, are apt vehicles for the acidic, lightly spicy soy-vinegar sauce they're paired with. Vegetarian egg rolls, to be dipped in a hot-cherry-hued sweet-and-sour sauce, are as greaseless as the potstickers, but need more than cabbage and carrots to give them character.

The entrées, which arrive seconds after we polish off the last dumpling, are also a mixed bag. The quality, like the price, resembles that of an average Bay Area cheap Chinese, but Yan Can's food isn't quite as oily or rich. Chunks of tender grilled Korean barbecued beef, coated in a winsome soy-based marinade, lean up against a scoop of white rice over which a tangy chile sauce has been squirted. Shredded vegetables and a small heap of oddly bitter fresh kimchi are scattered around for color and contrast.

Unlike many other Chinese takeout restaurants, Yan Can's white rice has a welcome toothiness. Tangerine chicken comes with "carrot rice," a chewy blend of white and short-grained brown rice mixed with a squirt of soy and carrot filaments.

The orange zest scenting the chicken's tangerine sauce comes through brightly in certain bites, proof it didn't come out of a test tube. The meat it coats, however, didn't get much batter before going into the oil, so it ended up more tough than tender. Sautéed green onions and red pepper strips brighten up the dish. Those two vegetables, along with some fried string beans and julienned red cabbage filaments, perform the same visual function in the pad thai. But they can't rescue the dish from blandness. The snow-white rice noodles are pleasingly chewy and the shrimp cooked just right, but where is the sauce? No tamarind, no peanuts, no bean sprouts, no lime.

The boundaries between fast food and fast-casual aren't always clear, but fast-casual restaurants focus on more gourmet-savvy ingredients, freshly prepared rather than freezer-to-fryer food, and limited table service. They also cost more: According to a "Fast Casual Profile" report recently released by the market-measurer NPD Group, the average consumer spent $5.40 per meal at fast-casual restaurants in November 2001, compared to $4.34 at fast-food restaurants.

According to Greg Sanders, editor of QSR, the fast-food restaurant industry's trade magazine, "Traditional quick service [fast food] is growing, in terms of sales, in the low to mid single digits. Fast casual, though, is growing at a rate of fifteen to twenty percent. Everyone's jumping in on the action."

Suffering from an oversaturated market and growing public discontent with the perceived unhealthiness of fast food, all of the major fast-food chains are scrambling to establish fast-casual toeholds. McDonald's has purchased a 51 percent share of Chipotle, acquired Boston Market, and invested money in Prêt à Manger, London's ubiquitous sandwich shop, to bring it to New York City. In one of the most publicized fast-casual acquisitions, Wendy's bought California-based chain Baja Fresh this May and plans to take it to the East Coast.

Sanders says that the national chains are also trying to change their in-house image: "It's all about upscaling -- the look, the menu." Carl's Jr. has introduced a $6 burger, Arby's a "Market Fresh" line of sandwiches. Subway has redesigned its stores to look Tuscan, and is claiming its inner fast-casualness.

The fast-casual market is pitched to boomers. Says Scott Hume, managing editor of Restaurants and Institutions, "The people who grew up on fast food and are responsible for its boom in the 1960s and '70s are moving solidly into middle age. They don't want to eat hamburgers as often. A chicken sandwich on focaccia, however, really appeals to them."

Urban Bay Area diners have long looked for fast, cheap food in non- European eateries: taquerias, Chinese restaurants, shawerma stands, Vietnamese pho parlors. More recent trends include Thai noodle shops and Indian chaat. The big chains haven't overlooked that. Yan Can will have to compete nationally not just with Panda but with Chop Stix, now owned by TGI Fridays. The competition for Mexican fast-casual is even more fierce: Baja Fresh, Chipotle, and Rubio's Baja Grill are all rushing to open up more restaurants in the East Bay.

In fact, right next to the future home of the next Yan Can restaurant in the El Cerrito Plaza is the East Bay's first Rubio's. Ralph Rubio set up his first taco stand in 1983 in Carlsbad, California. A former surfer on the Baja beaches, Rubio decided to replicate the fish tacos he ate there up north.

Several days before trying out Yan Can, I spent an evening at Rubio's, sampling its fast-casual food. Though Rubio's tacos certainly don't resemble the ones thrust out the windows of International Boulevard's taco trucks, they're pretty tasty, especially when you clear away the mountain of shredded iceberg lettuce that covers the fillings and squeeze fresh lime juice over the meat. (The taco makers thoughtfully wrap a lime wedge along with each taco, like a pickle spear in a deli sandwich.) Chunks of whitefish -- which the Web site reports is sustainably fished mahimahi -- are lightly battered and deep-fried, then covered with a little red tomato salsa, a thick white sauce, and degarlicked guacamole.

The same taco treatment was given to grilled fish tacos, with a light char that I preferred over the deep-fried originals. My tablemates disagreed, preferring the play of textures in the battered fish. A third taco, filled with iodine-scented frozen shrimp, didn't strike anyone's fancy.

Rubio's larger meals and combo plates -- yes, their burritos are thin enough to pair with a taco -- come with excellent tortilla chips, crunchy but oilless. They are perfect for scooping up the fixin's at the fixin' bar. These include pickled jalapeños, lemon and lime wedges, and a trio of salsas, made daily in house: a "muy mild" blended tomato salsa, a tart but one-dimensional salsa verde, and a thick, smoky "muy hot" roasted tomato salsa, the best of the bunch.

Rubio's burritos didn't quite hit the same note as its tacos. The grilled steak in the beef burrito special was smoky, tender, and well seasoned. But it was combined with salty refried beans, salty rice, shredded cheese, and a dab of red salsa fresca too skimpy to counterbalance the main ingredients. Similarly, salty rice and beans overpowered the easily lost flavor of shellfish in the lobster burrito.

Rubio's and Yan Can are welcome additions to the malls and food courts of the United States, but they can't compete for flavor and friendliness with many of our favorite homegrown independent restaurants. One of the main reasons I pay more to live in the Bay Area is so I can be surrounded by hundreds of these tiny, cheap, amazing places. The imperfections I tasted at both restaurants, though, are hopeful signs. The fast-casual movement doesn't just promise fresher, healthier fast food -- it puts human cooks back in control of making food fit for humans.


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