The Yue Kee food truck has been a beloved fixture on South 38th Street for as long as many Chinese food lovers in University City can remember, slinging spicy Beijing hot noodles and wok-seared eggplant in black bean sauce since Ronald Reagan was president. But the Yue Kee era, sadly, is about to end.
“Time to retire!” chef Tsz Pong told me as he swiftly turned back to a smoking wok to cook my final order of ginger chicken and ma paul tofu recently at Yue Kee, the truck he’s operated for 37 years with wife and co-owner, Bi Pang, across from the Wharton School.
“I plan on ordering food from them every day until their closing,” said David Lee, a longtime Inquirer reader, Walnut Hill resident and Yue Kee regular who alerted me last week to the truck’s impending closing on Nov. 25. (The date has been pushed back, Lee said, since Pong posted a sign with an earlier closing noted in the truck’s window.)
Lee, who recalled my two-bell review of the truck in 2005, even offered to interpret an interview with Pong in Cantonese, “because it will help my process of mourning.”
Pong told Lee that COVID-19, which closed the dorms at the University of Pennsylvania and shifted all classes online, had impacted their business dramatically: “He loses money every day."
Of course, it is a minor miracle that Yue Kee ever made money considering that virtually the entire menu is still just $4.50 or less an item. The fact Pong cooks each one to order is both the reason his food tastes so good (“Yue Kee’s flavors closely resemble the food I grew up eating at home,” said Lee), and why orders here have always required uncommon patience.
“20 minutes!” is Pang’s famous reply to all phone calls, which is the only way to get your order through — even if you happen to be standing in front of the truck in line.
Even more remarkable, though, is the awe-striking longevity of this duo to run their truck 10 hours a day, six days a week, for nearly four decades. And consider Yue Kee’s place in Philly food history. I was inspired to write that review back in 2005 (the first and only time I’ve formally rated and reviewed a truck) not simply because of its value, but because Yue Kee’s food was bold, fresh and uncompromising.
Pong was cooking those Beijing hot noodles long before Han Dynasty helped make its kindred dish, dan dan noodles, wildly popular fare citywide. Yue Kee was cooking Cantonese flavors long before University City swelled with the international students who helped inspire a veritable Chinatown West of new restaurants cooking the now fashionable Szechuan, Shanghainese and Taiwanese flavors of the day.
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Yes, University City has long had many food carts to satisfy its campus appetites. But Yue Kee was always a notch above. Its ancient Grumman truck, a time-beaten relic even 15 years ago, was a destination mobile kitchen before Philly’s food truck revolution really hit an ambitious stride a decade ago. How many of those next-gen food truck pioneers, I wonder, are still rolling to work in their truck each day? Let alone for 37 years? I cannot think of many — if any.
And so it was with equal parts eagerness, admiration and melancholy that I made my way back to Yue Kee for one final order of Pong’s cooking, observing through his truck’s window as he conjured magic from the flurry of smoke and clanging steel at his wok, and filled the Styrofoam clam shells with fragrant Chinese flavors. They were as good as ever.
We are “grateful for your concern,” Pang wrote my colleague, Bethany Ao, who had also reached out on my behalf. “Life has reached a turning point, it is time to retire. Thank you again for your support for decades.”
— Craig LaBan