The origins of the building are obscure, but it seems to have been a Japanese-style hostel owned by a Hong Kong tycoon until 1963, when the Pang family bought it and converted it to a restaurant. ("Yucca de Lac" means "evergreen by the lake.") Bruce Lee was often spotted dining with his family there; numerous movie scenes were filmed on-site; and the glitterati of Hong Kong and beyond took advantage of the broad panoramic patio and beautiful weather, a place to see and be seen.
I couldn't locate an old menu but read that roast pigeon and spicy fried prawns were house favorites. I did unearth a 2000 interview in Hong Kong's Varsity magazine with Lo Chee Ping, a waiter who had been in service at the restaurant since it opened. He claimed that the restaurant served 600 customers a day.
The current rendition of Yucca de Lac is at Stanford Shopping Center, owned by Parnell Pang of the Hong Kong family. The restaurant is inviting and chicly appointed, but it seems to have traveled far from its origins.
In fact, I found the menu — an unusual East-West fusion — to be somewhat of a head-scratcher. Asian staples such as steamed dumplings, pot stickers and spring rolls were offered along with baby back ribs, arugula-watermelon salad and tiramisu. No roast pigeon or spicy fried prawns.
The food drifted between very good and mediocre, and portions were uneven: enough for two sometimes, barely enough for one at others. Prices were high and entrees came with nothing else on the plate. Add another four to eight dollars for a rice or vegetable dish. Wines were at stick-em-up prices.
Opened in March, Pang only recently appointed Joe Gorcsi as manager. During a recent telephone interview, Gorcsi said he was working hard at improvements to both the front of the house and in the kitchen. Duly noted.
Appetizers included crispy "chopsticks" ($9), a touch of shrimp paste and garlic inside tightly rolled fried batter. The half-dozen sticks were sparse food for nine dollars and were served with dreary celery and carrot sticks. To add to my incredulity, there was a maraschino cherry in the wasabi-mayonnaise dipping sauce that I had mistaken for a cherry tomato.
Har gow ($8) was three steamed dumplings filled with shrimp and fennel. Pretty presentation in the bamboo steamer, but the dumplings were tiny and the shrimp and fennel flavors barely registered.
The crab-and-avocado spring roll ($10) was the best of the lot. The crabmeat and avocado were rolled fat into rice paper, chilled and beautifully presented. (Although the menu made me a tad uneasy, emphasizing "real crab meat.")
Now, main dishes. The Tolo Cove ribs ($28) were terrific. The two large marinated slabs were slow-roasted and slathered in ginger-garlic sauce. Huge portion. Fall-off-the-bone tender. Meaty. I took one slab home and luxuriated in the delicious aromas filling the car en route.
Other entrees were less successful. The miso-garlic salmon ($25) was an ample portion of perfectly cooked Canadian salmon. The miso-garlic sauce, though, wasn't salty, sweet, earthy, fruity or savory — flavors most associated with miso. Like most of the dishes, this one was bland. A couple of sprigs of fresh asparagus accompanied.
Orange chicken ($22) featured chunks of organic breast in sticky-sweet and supposedly spicy orange sauce. Let's say sweet with the vaguest hint of chili. The portion size didn't support the price, with no extras on the plate.
The side of French string beans ($8) sat in a pool of nondescript brown sauce. Dime-store spaghetti tongs were left as the serving utensils.
Desserts were all $6.75. Nothing worth the calories. The molten cake was unexciting chocolate sponge cake with warm chocolate cream inside. The tiramisu substituted rum syrup for espresso. I don't recall seeing Italian desserts on Asian or Asian-fusion menus before.
"Mango Dreaming" was described as homemade mango pudding with "real mango chunks." The pudding was so congealed and rubbery it might have bounced had it fallen off the table. No discernible flavor.
Those wines, by the way, were $12 per miserly pour for the 2010 Talbott Logan Chardonnay, Santa Lucia, which retails for $15.99 the bottle; and $9 per pour for the 2011 Yalumba Viognier, Barossa Valley, which retails for $11.29 the bottle at local stores. I realize Stanford Shopping Center is a high-rent district, but really.
The servers were all pleasant and generally knowledgeable. Oddly, there were no chopsticks available, just Western utensils.
One can only hope for improvement, and Gorcsi seems determined to tweak what a manager can tweak. Bigger hurdles remain for Pang: the menu, the prices and the overall concept. The restaurant's name doesn't mean anything to most Americans.
I admire subsequent generations doing their own thing, but other than the name, there seems scant connection to the original Yucca de Lac. I don't know how the Pang ancestors would respond, but so far, I doubt former waiter Lo Chee Ping would approve.
Yucca de Lac
Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto
Hours: Weekdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: yes
Private parties: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent