It must be nice to come in from the cold. In November, the operators of popular food truck Mei Mei Street Kitchen — siblings Andy, Irene, and Margaret “Mei” Li — added a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Mei Mei arrived just in time to provide shelter from the polar vortexes, bombogenesis, and other frigid winter phenomena. The 36-seat restaurant is a cheery little place with a brightly illustrated chalkboard wall, yellow chairs and stools, an open kitchen, and shelves filled with sriracha bottles and cookbooks.
It must be even nicer to spread out. Stationary, with room to maneuver in the kitchen, the chefs can do full justice to what the Lis call “creative Chinese-American cuisine,” made with ingredients that are local, seasonal, and sustainably raised.
At lunch, the restaurant’s menu resembles the truck’s (chefs Irene Li and Max Hull oversee both): easily ported items like slow-cooked rice porridge with tofu stew and gochujang butter or the Double Awesome, an egg sandwich with pesto and cheddar on scallion pancakes. These are very appealing, savory and filling, although the food is a bit heavy on poached eggs (in many of the dishes) and scallion pancakes (the default sandwich bread). There is balance, though — for instance, a salad of wheatberries and pickled cranberries with miso-honey vinaigrette and spiced peanut brittle. It’s a wild combination, a whirl of flavors and textures.
At dinner, the imagination behind that salad is on full display. The food is playful, clever, well composed. Dishes begin with traditional Chinese flavors and preparations, then break out in flash mobs energized by contemporary food culture. It’s the kind of food that servers are excited to serve, eagerly explaining preparations and sharing favorites. It would be hard to find a more welcoming crew than that at Mei Mei.
Sichuan kung pao chicken becomes killer Super Bowl (consolation) fare when it meets cheesy dip. So you get the chilies, the peanuts, the ginger, garlic, and scallions, in a rich and gooey base to spread on crunchy toasts.
Chicken and waffles is everywhere (see related story, Page 20). Mei Mei’s trotters and waffles lends a new twist to the combination of sweet breakfast food and savory meat. Trotters (a.k.a. pigs’ feet) from John Crow Farm in Groton are turned into a sort of terrine patty, breaded in pebbly crumbs and fried crisp. This is served atop a brioche waffle with Dijon-maple whip, pickled carrots, and a spicy cranberry sauce. (The tart fruit pops up at Mei Mei even more frequently than poached eggs, and more often than it needs to.)
Beef stew and mapo doufu find common ground in a dish that includes smoked shanks, bean curd, chewy wheatberries, chile-bean paste and fermented black beans, and lamb’s head broth. Sliced apple brings crunch and freshness. The dish is deeply smoky with a sneaky heat. It is very good at dinner. As leftovers, flavors deepening overnight, it is one of the best winter dishes around.
And hand-pulled noodles, long and chewy, are topped with a complex meat sauce (is there whiskey in there? chocolate?), sour cream, and smoked mozzarella, blurring lines between biang biang noodles, Cincinnati chili, and stroganoff. Pork dumplings, however, are too heavy, and the skins lack snap.
Winter warmth curry combines “eight lucky vegetables” of the season (parsnips, Brussels sprouts, radishes, and more) in a warming, spice-scented red sauce with fried Korean rice cakes, crisp and chewy. It is warming indeed. And a dish called “carrots and seeds” is an elegant, earthy composition of carrots with ricotta, sunflower seeds, maple-tea glaze, and cranberries atop a smear of black sesame paste. Both dishes get away with being vegetarian food that barely registers as such.
Yet the chefs at Mei Mei excel at preparing large pieces of meat, family-style. It sometimes seems there is a pork chop for two on every new menu in town. Mei Mei’s version is a rib and belly chop, served in pink, juicy slices arrayed around the bone. The slices progress from (occasionally tough) fatty bacon to leaner meat; beneath them is tender cabbage made creamy with miso. On the side are doughy steamed buns, cranberry-hoisin sauce, apple jelly, pickled carrots, and pea shoots. The menu suggests sharing it among two to four people, and that is generous. This is a lot of meat. The accompaniments lend variety, but fruit sauces can be too sweet.
Five spheres chicken features perfect roast meat, tender and flavorful with crisp skin. It is served sliced with the five “spheres”: beet, apple, rutabaga, kohlrabi, and an egg that has been poached then fried. (The dish is a local adaptation of a recipe for squab with five spheres from Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.” That version uses longan, dates, lotus seeds, goji berries, and lychees.) Also on the plate are celery root puree, sweet strips of dehydrated carrot, and the best part: tallow fried black rice, the grains chewy, with crisp bits here and there, picking up flavor from the fat.
Dessert might be fried buns with chipotle “Nutella,” cranberry jam, and cocoa nib brittle; the buns again are doughy, and the dish reads too much like peanut butter and jelly in the mouth. A version of shave ice is better. With maple and coffee syrup, chestnut puree, and crushed peanuts, it is a refreshing delight, if heavy on the peanuts.
Mei Mei serves excellent nonalcoholic drinks. The Haymaker’s Punch — apple cider vinegar with honey and bitters — truly complements the food. And hot buttered fire cider, spiked with ginger and cayenne, is rich, warming, and spicy, like something you’d find at Hogwarts. But what would really be wonderful with the food is cold beer. Last week, the Lis brought a petition with hundreds of signatures to a hearing where they sought a beer, wine, and cordials license, to no avail. There are simply no such licenses available right now.
It is time to lift the state cap on these licenses, in short supply and prohibitively priced on the open market. No one deserves one more than this team of young entrepreneurs working to build a small, independent business in the city.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) Poor