We’re not fans of romanticizing the past. Really, is there anything worse than someone claiming to be “born in the wrong generation?” But Zen Mei Bistro is more than just a throwback. This cozy Cantonese restaurant, located on the corner of Yale and Alpine in Chinatown, is a reminder that life can – and maybe should— be slower, more peaceful. Things are as old-school as they come here: baked pork chops are served on china plates. The hot tea comes near the kettle. Receipts are scribbled by hand. Only cash is accepted. And everyone gets a free soup.
Are you going to eat the best Chinese food of your life here? No. But a meal at Zen Mei offers something just as valuable: a quiet, comfortable space where emails, to-do lists, Twitter feeds, and the name “Crypto.com Arena” make no sense. It’s a welcome escape.
To enter the restaurant, ring the doorbell (as the charming handwritten sign indicates) and wait to be greeted. Once inside, Zen Mei Bistro has the energy of a classic neighborhood diner: Formica tables, fluorescent lighting, a fridge full of sodas that neighborhood school kids occasionally loot, mixed with splashes of auspicious that reflect the neighborhood in which it is located. A simple shrine sits above the cash register, a laughing Buddha sits on the mini fridge. You are likely to eat here when the restaurant is completely empty or sit next to regulars who have been coming for over 30 years.
Prices haven’t changed much since Zen Mei opened in the 90s. Of the entire menu of over 100 dishes, a Peking Roast Duck is the most expensive dish at $32.75. From kung pao shrimp and seared sole to shredded pork chow mein, everything falls under $15 or significantly less if you come for lunch. Like many other Chinatown restaurants, Zen Mei offers Chinese “chop-suey” dishes like Orange Chicken and Honey Walnut Shrimp, but the real specialty here is Cantonese cuisine. In particular, a rich variety of seafood dishes. Fried lobster, also known as “dragon shrimp”, is served with the shell still intact, the beautiful dark red color reminding us of Los Angeles sunsets whenever the smog is really bad.
For an easy breakfast, order the scrambled eggs and prawns, a simple, runny dish flavored with green onions. And our favorite here is the BBQ Pork Wonton Soup: a massive bowl filled with large, brain-like wontons that are wrapped so tightly they look shrunken, showing a richness of meat inside. It’s served with thin slices of pork and silky egg noodles, a hearty hot dish to order whenever you need a hug from your mum, but remember she lives way too far away for that. .
It’s all very traditional, not in a showy way, but anyone familiar with Chinese cuisine knows that it’s all about balance and harmony. Based on the Taoist principle of yin and yang, everything from flavor to texture to aroma should not only be contrasted but also complemented by its surroundings. This is demonstrated simply in the configuration of Zen Mei’s plates: there is an eerily pleasant feeling, something resembling Zen, that occurs when you look at the mixture of green porcelain chopsticks, plates surrounded by red and milky white bowls on the table. . Order when the time feels right, pay when you’re done. At Zen Mei Bistro, there’s really no need to rush, everything happens when it’s supposed to.
#196 BBQ Pork/Soy Sauce Chicken and Wonton with Noodle Soup
We are not doctors, but this soup is so nutritious that we have the impression that it could cure… the common cold? Homesick ? That very specific void that comes from being alive? A large bowl contains all of our favorite things in the world: sliced barbecue pork, chicken in soy sauce, big wontons (pinched at the top like a vintage purse) and a clear, comforting broth.
#27 Lobster with Ginger and Green Onion Sauce
Save this dish for fancy occasions, like celebrating a big promotion or the fact that you finally updated your insurance information with your therapist (it’s been months, right). This lobster is a real luxury – still encased in the shell, the tender white meat is coated in cornmeal and tossed with a little ginger, scallions and soy sauce to create a wonderful sticky texture. It’s a bit sweet from soy sauce; crisp from the pan. There’s yin, yang, and plenty of meat for everyone.
#50 Shrimps with Scrambled Egg
Like the French style, the eggs are cooked slowly over low heat to create a runny texture. Next, marinated shrimp and rice wine join the mix, along with some green onions for garnish. It’s a simple and improved version of the scrambled eggs you would make at home.
#127 Crispy Salt Fried Tofu
A surprise success! We honestly ordered this because we were thinking “Maybe we should eat less meat” and were pleasantly surprised. Tofu squares are fried and cut evenly, then served with a pot of rice. And we literally hear a pot— it comes in a bright red basin and can feed three to four people.
Singapore style fried rice noodles
A lunch special only. As the name suggests, it’s a bit of a fusion dish: thin egg noodles are sautéed with what looks like a mountain of curry powder. The noodles arrive thick and almost dry. If you need something to wake you up in the middle of the day, this spicy dish should do the trick.