Welcome back to The Bite, Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.
Back in the early 1980s, I was working in a small architectural firm in the city. One of my duties was working out the public assembly plans for most of the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. At lunch time or at the end of the day, the owners would treat me like an honored guest by rolling out their best dishes for me to sample. After my third restaurant or so, I noticed a pattern. On my first visit, the owners would offer me something safe, something they knew this white boy from Long Island could handle. By my third or fourth visit, I’d be feasting on the true delicacies of Chinese cuisine; jelly fish, chicken feet, shark fin soup, eel, stinky tofu, thousand year old eggs and things I still can’t identify.
One aspect of Chinese cuisine eluded me — the Chinese bakery. With so many restaurants offering me their best dishes, the store front bakeries of Chinatown held no appeal. My friends in the business told me to stay out — saying that the bakeries “were like our McDonald’s.”
I took them at their word — I stayed out. That attitude stayed with me for many years. It wan’t until recently that I even set foot into one of the many Chinese bakeries in our area. I admit it, I was a snob.
Staying true to our creed, “If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite,” I began venturing into the Chinese bakeries of our neighborhood. At first, I was tempted by the more familiar European style bakery foods, such as the Napoleons, the cakes, the cookies. They were all a big let down.
I then ventured into the unfamiliar — the red bean bao, the pork buns, the scallion cakes, steamed buns, baked buns, puddings, custards and my new favorite — a watermelon milk shake. The flavors and the textures of these foods were a revelation. The prices blew me away. Now I understood the attraction of the Chinese bakeries and why my restaurant buddies wanted me to stay out.
In the picture, you’ll see a sampling of Mei Mei II’s (1415 Gravesend Neck Road) best dishes. The water melon milkshake ($2.50) peaked my interest from the first visit. Not knowing what to expect, I watched as the counter person dropped ice, fresh watermelon and a little heavy cream into a blender producing one of the best fruit smoothies I’ve had in a long time. This light and refreshing drink opened up my palette to the treats to follow.
The steamed pork bun ($0.80) is huge! Sweet, with a slight trace of coconut, dough is filled with sweet and savory pork. Not pork fat as you find in many an establishment, but large chunks of barbecued pork meat.
The scallion bread’s sweet and egg glazed dough is flecked with scallions and bacon. This bread would make an outrageous sandwich base, but is good enough to be a meal on its own.
The curry chicken triangle ($0.90) is light, flaky and stuffed with dark meat chicken in a toothsome, punchy curry sauce. I could see this filling being offered on its own as meal served over sticky rice.
A roast chicken roll ($0.80) is filled with a marvelous all dark meat chicken stew. Add a few chunks of celery and carrots and this stew can pass on any Waspy wife’s table.
The Siu Mai ($2.50), or steamed dumplings, were filled with more pork than any I’ve ever had before. I’ve eaten Siu Mai in Chinatowns from Vancouver to San Francisco, to Mexico City and back to Avenue U, and these were by far the best. The pork tasted like pork, not always the case, and the dough held the meat without being rubbery.
The last dish on the plate is the four-eyed hot dog ($0.80). This dish eluded me. It was listed in the display case at every visit, but only available once. A hot dog is cut into four pieces and wrapped in dough, arranged into a flower formation, baked and topped with a creamy sauce that was somewhere between straight mayonnaise and tartar sauce. Frankly, this was OK, but a bit disappointing. I’ve had pigs in a blanket before.
Mei Mei Bakery II, 1415 Gravesend Neck Road, (718) 998-1867