I've got a soft spot for restaurants that opened mid-pandemic, particularly those run by Asian Americans — who, as we all know, have been the target of racist hate, thanks in no small part to the garbage spewed by the former man-baby in chief. Mei's Kitchen, a Taiwanese restaurant in East Orlando, opened in the not-so-merry month of May to very little fanfare, but those who visited for takeout, or ate inside the dining room when it opened back up to the public, knew they had stumbled onto a true find.
That dining room, by the way, underwent a thorough de-Orientalizing from its former days as Pu Yi Chinese restaurant. It now possesses the characteristic characterless modernity of today's average restaurant, but the dishes are classics through and through. And through the pass-through window, I threw a glance at chef-owner Mei Feng Wang patrolling her spacious kitchen, readying a lunch order as I placed mine at the counter. The friendly lass behind the register suggested the salt and pepper chicken ($5.95, pictured above) and gua bao ($2.95), two recs that un-crouched the tiger in my stomach. I took a seat, sipped some milk tea and took note of how the tables were clearly and prudently tagged to maintain a safely separated dining experience. The fact I was the only person in the place was sheer coincidence, and not a result of overzealous policing.
If anyone did walk in, I sure as hell didn't notice — all my senses were focused on that poppin' chicken. The marinated nuggets are tossed in a salty five-spice batter, coated with potato starch, then fried twice for an unparalleled crisp. There's an additional dusting of five-spice and a garnish of fried basil to make them even more habit-forming.
But Taiwan's most famous export (after Momofuku Ando) has to be gua bao, the pork belly bun that's taken Planet Earth by storm. It's presented here in traditional form — a thick cut of tender braised belly layered into a doughy white envelope with pickled mustard greens, cilantro and a sugary peanut powder. Both dishes served as worthy preludes to an equally worthy bowl of beef noodle soup ($11.95), Taiwan's official national dish (even if most of the world doesn't recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation). The broth, light yet beefy, contains a simple assemblage of noods, bok choy and cuts of braised beef shank. Now, this is by no means a complaint, but wow, there's a lot of beef in this soup — like four or five thick slabs of shank. I couldn't bring myself to finish them all but, then again, I was already stuffed to the hilt.
There were, however, dishes enjoyed during dinner: mapo tofu ($9.95), not near the level of the versions served at Taste of Chengdu or Chuan Lu, but serviceable nonetheless; and a crisp and hefty fried pork chop ($10.95) offered as a "bento box" with rice, hard-boiled egg, egg roll, cabbage and egg drop soup. A layer of ground meat (pork, I think) sandwiched between chop and rice really made for a protein-packed meal.
And I couldn't pass on the baozi ($2.95), the large, pillowy alabaster bun resembling Astro Boy's curlicued noggin. Mei's version took me back to the days when my friend Brian and I would down the steamed pork-and-scallion orbs at his house after school. Brian left us way too early, so there's always a tinge of melancholy in eating them. Honestly, I thought twice about ordering the bun, but then I thought Brian would've wanted me to.
Mei as well.