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Some of you may think I review too many Asian restaurants, and the thought has crossed my mind. Lying awake at night, I sometimes get concerned that maybe my columns are a little heavy on the East end of the cuisine spectrum.
Minutes into self-diagnosing a problem that may or may not exist, I usually throw a used chopstick into the spokes of my recklessly spinning wheels and promise myself to never apologize for writing about Asian restaurants. Our landscape has so many, ranging from good to great with a few bad apples, and I’m forever on a quest to find my new favorite.
There are a couple of really good Thai restaurants in our area. I can find a great bowl of pho in three or four places, and sushi is in no danger of extinction here. I can count on one hand the number of good Indian restaurants, but the ones that are good are really good.
We are deficient in Korean, I will admit, and it pains me. Not one of you reading this (with any sense in your head) doesn’t have a favorite Chinese buffet or takeout. But what about more authentic Chinese cuisine?
Look no further than Yuan Mei. As in, “You and me need some real Chinese.” I first heard of this place from Roy Clark, downtown bartender extraordinaire, who appreciates authenticity. Just look at The Haberdasher’s drink menu and you’ll understand. Roy is in part responsible for Mobile’s Tiki Week, crawfish boiling, taco spirit journeys and barbecue searches, all in the name of authenticity, so when he mentioned this place, I said, “Let’s do it. You and me.”
It was a lazy lunch day at the corner of Cottage Hill and Hillcrest. We were the only two in the dining room at 11:30 a.m., but that didn’t discourage me. We were directed to the final page of the menu with all the lunch combinations, such as moo goo gai pan, kung pao, sesame chicken … you get the point. We told our waitress we were here for a different experience and started on Page 1.
With her help, we cobbled together what I would consider a pretty good example of what this place is about, beginning with Pan-Fried Dumplings ($5.95). Sounds like any other Chinese place, but these were put together with ground chicken, crispy enough to be noisy and tender enough to cut with a fork. A wonderful alternative to the mass-produced pot stickers.
Our waitress recommended the Teriyaki Chicken Kabobs ($3.95). Again, it’s something you’d find at a buffet, but these were so much better. It’s like the difference between fast food and fine dining. More attention to detail, a better sauce and succulent chicken made this a standout.
We went back and forth on the soup, but settled on the Seafood Clay Pot ($14.95, serves two). Onions and a bit of cabbage accented the noodles, with plenty of tofu to thicken up the clear broth. Shrimp, sliced calamari and imitation crab qualified it as seafood. We already looked as if we were overloaded with dishes, but we kept on trucking.
From a previous visit, Roy remembered enjoying the Spicy Chicken ($10.50). I certainly couldn’t argue with that, though it turned out to be a bit strange. Tiny bits of stir-fried chicken were almost as crispy as the fried tofu tossed with peanuts, jalapeños and scallions. I say it was odd because the well-seasoned meat and tofu were completely dry, yet served with rice. I don’t remember ever having Chinese without at least some kind of sauce, which is weird with rice.
Roy wasn’t as thrilled as he remembered, but I loved it. It was better the next day at home. We ate it with our fingers as if it were bar trash, sans rice. It’s just spicy enough to have a pleasant-but-slight afterburn.
Neither of us are especially big fans of tofu, but we had to try something from that side of the menu. I let Roy take the reins and he steered us toward Mapo Tofu ($9.95). This large portion was anything but dry in a giant bowl of soft tofu with a mild-but-present chili sauce. Tiny chicken meatballs added to the protein, and my thoughts on tofu began to change.
We had tofu three ways that day, and all were good. In the hot pot, it was firm and went well with the seafood. Fried crispy in the spicy chicken, we experienced an airy crunch and in our final dish we saw what it was like to have it melt in your mouth. There are a dozen or more dishes on the tofu menu, and plenty of other menu items offering tofu as an ingredient. Immerse yourself in it.
There are more than 150 menu items — no kidding — under the subcategories of vegetable, chicken, seafood, pork, beef and lamb. I’ve yet to have Chinese lamb, but I’m up for it. I also saw they had Basil Big Feet with ginger, garlic and a special brown sauce. Of course Big Foot gets a brown sauce; I wonder how Big Feet tastes? Obviously not like chicken, because they put him in the pork section.
Everything we had was good, and if it was a common item, I’d say the Yuan Mei version was a better example. This leads me to believe those lunch specials might be fantastic. I may never know. It’ll be difficult to give up on the “authentic” menu items. How about you let me know? Better yet, take me with you. It could just be you and me.
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