Mei Wei Bistro is a boring stranger but a great friend

by Aidan Morgan

restaurantsMei Wei Bistro
4626 Albert Street
3.5 out of 5

What a difference a guide makes. As Dante said of Virgil (in carefully constructed tercets of 13th century Italian) (seriously, it must have taken Dante all day just to order breakfast), a good guide can render even Hell traversable.

Not that the Mei Wei Bistro should be compared in any way to Hell. For example, everyone there is (presumably) alive. And there’s soy sauce duck, which I doubt you’re going to get in any circle of the underworld.

But Mei Wei, which offers a combination of fairly typical Western-style Asian and more unusual Hong Kong cuisine, benefits greatly from a bit of knowledge, or at least a knowledgeable dining companion.

Our first exploratory visit didn’t go well. We were given standard cutlery — no chopsticks unless you ask — and the server tried to steer us away from the pages of the menu where more interesting fare lurked. After a fruitless conversation with the server, our appetite for something interesting dissipated and we plumped for more conventional fare: shanghai noodles $9.95), chicken in Szechuan sauce ($12.95), beef broccoli ($10.95), mixed vegetables ($8.95) and a round of Vietnamese iced coffees. I tried to order Hong Kong-style coffee, which I’ve craved ever since my time in Calgary in the ’90s, but they couldn’t make it for me.

The results were underwhelming. In fact, the best dish of the meal turned out be a plate of Szechuan shrimp, which we hadn’t ordered but showed up in place of the chicken. The Shanghai noodles, with little slivers of vegetable and beef, were oily and unctuous, and desperately needed the chili oil at the table to spice them up. The broccoli and beef was pretty bland as well, but that always struck me as a dish ordered for the shock of green and the vague hope that the broccoli florets might undo the caloric damage incurred by piles of noodles in sugary sauce. The mixed vegetables were vegetables that were mixed together.

Here’s some advice: don’t go to Mei Wei Bistro for the iced coffee. It’s a watery affair with a parsimonious layer of evaporated milk.

After we finished, the sentiment around the table was pretty clear. My Knights of Appetite would not be returning for a second tilt at the menu. If I wanted to give the restaurant another try, I’d have to find someone else to accompany me.

Enter Sean, a former co-worker from the mystical realm of the aughties and, as it happened, a fan of Mei Wei Bistro.

Sean is the sort of person who doesn’t just frequent a restaurant; he befriends it (I must maintain critical distance, you see. Plus I’m just awkward). The dynamic shifted entirely when we sat down for supper. The server smiled and greeted us; chopsticks were brandished; maybe the clouds parted and music started playing. We flipped open the menu to the back pages and started ordering pretty much whatever caught our eye.

We started with the sliced beef chow fun ($10.95). This is a fairly standard Cantonese noodle dish that is surprisingly difficult to make. Mei Wei’s version isn’t exceptional but it’s a perfectly acceptable side dish.

A search for a good hot pot led us off-menu; we asked for a fish and tofu hot pot ($16.95), which resulted in a delicious and gigantic steaming pot of fish chunks (possibly halibut) with tofu pockets and vegetables. I’ve never been a huge hot pot fan, but this one turned me around completely. It could have fed a table of four, but I was happy to have a heaping amount all to myself.

We rounded out our meal (and hopelessly crowded the table) with “3 Kind of the Meat on the Plate” (19.95), which delivered exactly what it promised. From a list of eight options, we selected the barbecue duck, crispy roast pork and steamed chicken. Our waitress balked at our choice of steamed chicken, explaining that most Westerners didn’t enjoy it very much. “We’re like, intrepid and stuff,” I said, and ordered it anyway.

The steamed chicken turned out to be different than what I’d expected: very tender, cool to the touch, with a bright yellow skin. It had a slightly curried taste and a strangely uniform texture, almost as if the meat had been reconstituted. I’m not sure that I would leap to order it again, but I’m certain that it’s someone’s favourite. Besides, it came with a ginger scallion sauce — the secret weapon of Asian cuisine. If you haven’t tried ginger scallion sauce before, I recommend that you buy or make a gallon or two and pour it over everything in your fridge. Just open the fridge door and toss in the sauce.

The crispy roast pork, cut into sections and lining the edge of the plate, appeared to be pork belly with a crispy, but not tough, rind. The best thing on the plate, though, was the barbecue duck. I stuffed piece after piece in my mouth until my brain shorted out.

I’m going back to Mei Wei Bistro. And this time, I bringing a week’s worth of appetite. Look out, bakery section.

The Round Table

WHAT IS IT? Mei Wei Bistro.

WHAT’S IT FOR? Lunch, dinner, Chinese baked goods.

WHEN’S IT OPEN? Monday-Sunday, lunch and supper.

ABOUT IT? A duck killed my cousin and now I wander the land, hoping that with my next meal I’ll savour the sweet flesh of revenge between my teeth. It’s a long shot, but I’m willing to go the distance.