For Texans, comfort food is chicken fried steak, chili con carne and cheese enchiladas. For the Brits, it’s fish and chips and bangers and mash. And for the Cantonese, and for all those living in the many places where this deliciously simple cuisine has spread, it’s dumplings, soup and especially noodles, and you can tuck into some of the best of all of these at Mein in Chinatown.
Mein (pronounced “MIN”) nestles in a strip center on a backstreet near Bellaire and the Beltway alongside three more properties in the empire of hard-charging restaurateur Mike Tran — Japanese-style pub Toukei Izakaya, Ohn Korean Eatery and Ishin Udon. (Elsewhere in Chinatown, Tran’s properties also include Dun Huang Plaza ramen powerhouse Tiger Den and Blk Dog Coffee.)
While Mein’s sleek and cheery chandelier-lit industrial/Art Deco interior, complete with hand-drawn murals of femme fatales from the Golden Age of Chinese cinema, conjures the glamorous Shanghai of pre-Communist China, its fare is eternal: rice and rice noodles and wheat-based egg noodles, made on-site both thick and thin; tender-crisp stir-fried peppers and vegetables; clear and slow-simmered broths; and pork dishes claiming pride of place in the protein pack.
Americans have been eating variations of such fare for generations in Americanized form. What Mein offers is the original article of the generic “Chinese food” many of us grew up on generations ago, a drink from the spring right at the source rather than miles of muddied water downstream.
Tran has called Mein’s fare “everyday food” and it’s easy to see why. It’s inexpensive and non-intimidating even for those of us who grew up thinking of Chinese food as exotic. The waitstaff is friendly and vigilant without becoming overbearing, and helpful when you ask them what’s best on any given day.
It was one such waiter-aided deliberation that led a dining companion and me to a lovely little weekday lunch feast of sliced roast Sichuan pork cold cuts topped with garlic chili sauce and peanuts with fresh cilantro and greens on the side; Chiuchow fried shrimp roll served with a miso mustard dipping sauce; a beef and noodle stir-fry, and basil- and Thai-chili tinged drunken noodles with shrimp. Again, with the simplicity — the basic done really well can be outstanding, and that’s Mein’s stock-in-trade. Their homemade noodles are flavorful and just the right consistency; their produce very fresh and cooked just so; and the flavors meld well with no one element overpowering the rest, a well-trained choir singing in unison.
With appetizers at or under $7 and mains tending to run $12 and below, it’s a great spot to order up a tasting menu-type smorgasbord, opting for the familiar with some dishes and stretching your Westernized comfort zone with a few others, as with their Phnom Penh noodles, which include pork liver and other innards. If you want to go crazy on the unfamiliar end of the spectrum, there are better places in Chinatown to go for that. Mein is about the downhome and comforting.
And by all means save room for dessert — we did not, and I’ll just have to wait until my next trip to Mein to savor the restaurant’s famous lava toast: akin to two slices of French toast sandwiching a salted egg custard filling and the whole thing drizzled in maple syrup.
9630 Clarewood Dr., Ste: A13
Note: Mein is BYOB.