A reality of Big Apple dining — and prevailing global capitalism — is that if a foodstuff skyrockets in popularity among neighborhood spots, it won’t take long for a chain operator to try out its luck with bigger, shinier digs. Such is the case with Cantonese rice noodle rolls, or cheung fun (changfen in Mandarin), a gossamer delicacy whose texture ranges from barely firmer than tissue paper to so soft it’s almost more custard than noodle.
The New York scene in rice noodle rolls is booming, a reality that explains the September arrival of a larger player: Yin Ji Chang Fen, a chain that’s been making the speciality in Guangzhou since the 1950s. There, in China’s Southern Guangdong province, the noodles are a quintessential breakfast, hawked from street vendors and stuffed with dried shrimp, crullers, or scores of other fillings.
While excellent local spots like Yi Ji Shi Mo and Joe’s Steam Rice Roll function as leaner counter-service joints, Yin Ji’s Bayard Street location in Chinatown stakes a claim to being full service and slick. The New York flagship boasts fancy sliding doors, exposed brick, and a lengthy menu that features cheung fun filled with everything from sweet char siu pork to pig livers.
This sort of thing does not go unnoticed. A Facebook video shows a line wrapping around the block in its early days, which isn’t surprising for a venue with outposts in Singapore, Toronto, and Los Angeles — in addition to roughly 45 separate locations back in Guangzhou. And while the waits are generally quick-ish now in New York, Yin Ji is still fully packed on any given weeknight.
The question thus arises: Is this international franchise worth visiting over a more casual hometown hangout for cheung fun?
I snagged the last empty seat on a busy recent Monday around 7:00 p.m., though tables turned over quickly throughout the meal. Ten minutes later, out came two jiggly plates of cheung fun ($2.95-$6.95). Yin Ji, like the city’s more heralded rice noodle spots, milks its own rice and makes each order individually by hand, versus in batch steamers or by using pre-made rolls, the way that it’s done at most dim sum restaurants.
The labor intensive process involves briefly steaming the batter over a cloth mesh, adding any toppings, steaming it a bit longer, and then using a scraper to form everything into a shiny roll. The result is a snowy white mass surrounded by inky soy. Jell-O would seem like jerky by comparison with this teetering cheung fun.
The top layer of noodle is thin, flaunting the translucence of wax paper. Curls of shrimp or sweet-funky barbecue pork barely show through. A twist of the chopsticks dislodges a bite, which dissolves on the tongue so quickly it’s almost as if nothing is there, like a souffle — until the toppings jolt the tongue with their powerful flavors. A thicker layer of noodle near the bottom offers just a touch more resistance, closer to a barely-cooked omelet.
Here on Bayard, the cheung fun don’t exhibit the same fragrant aromas as Yi Ji Shi Mo on Elizabeth St; simply walking into that storefront channels a visit to a rice pudding factory during peak pudding hour. Yi Ji Shi Mo also produces a rice roll that’s more uniformly thin and resilient than at Yin Ji, with a qq-like texture that recalls a faintly stretchy boba sphere. Or over at Canal Street Market, the rolls at Joe’s come out pleasantly bouncy while still exhibiting remarkable tensile strength.
For a firmer experience at Yin Ji, the non-sauced cruller cheung fen show off their spring and squish with brilliant abandon.
So what’s the full analysis? Yin Ji Chang Fen is a BUY for those who generally want a preternaturally soft form of cheung fun — as well for folks seeking out a full-service restaurant with congee and iced milk tea. But those who prefer a more fragrant and toothsome noodle might consider the venue a HOLD, and sample the masterpieces at Joe’s or Yi Ji Shi Mo instead, though keep in mind they close hours earlier.
One last thing: Despite its worldwide pedigree and free wifi, Yin Ji is cash-only.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).