taste memory: Mei Li Wah
After lunch at Wonton Garden, the Mister and I walked around the corner to Mei Li Wah, another favorite Chinatown spot since my childhood.
As long as I’ve known it, Mei Li Wah has been two things: delicious and dank. This was no fancy sit-down restaurant, and it had no ambiance to speak of. This was an old-school coffeeshop for the men, with cigarette butts overflowing every ashtray and the walls crumbling under the weight of all the flyers and signs pasted on them over the years. Everything was a muted shade of brown, or black, including the patrons and the staff. Hardly anyone spoke English, but if you ordered your siopao (also known as baozi, or char siu bao) in Tagalog, you’d be answered quickly back– it was that popular among metro-area Filipinos that the staff picked up the words to serve them.
I didn’t know the men (it was always, only men that worked here) by name, but I knew their faces well. They always remembered my family, greeting us and giving us extra steamed chicken buns with egg, or pork buns (my favorite) with our order.
We’d order siopao by the dozen (everyone did), and watch as the server would take them out, steaming, from the dingy class case behind the counter, and pack them tightly into the square white boxes which they grabbed from the high stacks against the side wall. Like a contraption out of The Goonies, an endless piece of twine attached with pulleys to the ceiling dangling down. Once the siapao was packed, that string would be grabbed and nimbly wrapped around the box, with just one cut of the scissors to sever the rope from the line. With our box securely tied, we’d be back in the car, ready for our late-night dinner of siopao and Wonton Garden soup. It was my favorite New York meal ever, and it still is.
Sometime during college, my roommate at the time (a fellow foodie, with far superior knowledge of Chinese food since her family’s from Shanghai), told me that Mei Li Wah was closing. I cried. Went downtown and ordered two dozen siopao, freezing them so I could hold onto the magic a little longer. A short while later, I found out from my mom (who lives in Florida– I’m telling you, Filipinos know this place!) that one of the owners had some trouble with gambling debt or something, but it was staying open somehow. And it did.
I dream of this place, miss it terribly, and it’s not just because they have the best damn siopao on the planet. Everything about Mei Li Wah is so familiar, so timeless, and even as I grew up, moved around the city and eventually away, Mei Li Wah remained a constant. Dependable, even when my relationships, my career, my life weren’t.
So, yes, when the Mister and I walked around the corner from Wonton Garden and came upon Mei Li Wah, I was excited. He stayed outside as I went in, and in my hurry I failed to notice the tell-tale signs of change until it was too late.
(the bamboo plant and decorations in the window should have tipped me off. a sign for ‘bubble tea,’ for crying out loud.)
It was an abomination inside.
Everything was cleaned up and so new. The counter, where old men would sit all day with their coffees on the rotating stools, was gone, replaced by some faux-bamboo serving station that you’d find in some Pinkberry or frozen yogurt knockoff. The miniscule back seating area, where once people would play checkers for hours with their cigarettes in hand: gone and replaced with shiny new booths, again with the bamboo-themed design.
Worse, the old staff was missing, with the exception of one man I recognized, and replaced with young women dressed in matching bright orange polo shirts, with the name of the restaurant emblazoned over the left breast pocket. They had matching visors!
What. the. hell.
I ordered two siopao (I couldn’t bring myself to get a dozen, not here), and ran the hell out.
I didn’t want them to see the tears in my eyes, because it was just too much. Too different. Too generic, and corporatized. Where did the old staff go? What about their patrons? Forget me– where were the locals going to play checkers in the winter now?
I ate the siopao later, guiltily, at my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. It had been in the fridge for a while, so wasn’t as fresh. It still tasted wonderful. But it wasn’t special anymore, because I didn’t recognize where it had come from.
Some West Coast-bred friends of mine went to New York a week later for spring break. I hadn’t told them about Mei Li Wah, but I did recommend Wonton Garden to them, among other places. Not knowing the city, they didn’t know what neighborhood they were staying in until they were there. It ended up that they were in Chinatown for the week, and they excitedly recounted how they had found this amazingly cute little coffeeshop where they had cheap coffee and breakfast snacks every morning.
It was Mei Li Wah.
I’m ungrateful but I’ll say it– I wish it had just closed those years ago, when it was rumored to. I’d rather it be gone for good then have it like this. My taste memory of Mei Li Wah is just that; I will never have it again.