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Meng Lei's brow furrows every time I enter his restaurant.
He doesn't speak my language, and I don't know his. His menu, a modest sign on the wall, is rendered entirely in Chinese, with no English translation. This makes taking orders from English-only Americans impossible. I can't even point to what I want. I might as well be in Guangdong province, the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine and the style of cooking Lei specializes in: Chiu Chow.
Still, I come.
Even if you know the language, eating at Meng Lei's place can be frustrating. You can see him through a window into the kitchen, in profile, chopping and frying. When he's busy he won't even look up to greet you. The first time my friend Johnny Wang, a second-generation Chinese-American, went, Wang bailed. Lei saw him enter and kept right on cooking. Half an hour later, Wang's order still hadn't been taken. "I said, 'Forget this crap,' and left," he recalls.
But he came back.
Chiu Chow cuisine has teetered at the precipice of trendiness for two decades, but it remains virtually unavailable in New York or San Francisco, let alone St. Louis. "No one here knows the style. Even if I trained someone, it would take a long time to learn all the tricks that I know," Lei says one day when I bring along Eric Huang, executive secretary of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Greater St. Louis, as a translator. Lei says his only local "competition" is in Maryland Heights. Poking his thumb westward, he opines that the chef's attempts to execute a certain roast duck preparation, a Chiu Chow specialty, are "an embarrassment."
Lei speaks with authority. Doubters need only experience the supple pleasure of his cabbage rolls, as green as springtime, arrayed on a round platter like some sort of Chinese brain teaser, to grant it.
To make the cabbage rolls, Lei sautés shrimp, pork, mushrooms, ginger and garlic and douses them in a spicy brown sauce. Then he steams a leaf of napa cabbage, places a dollop of the shrimp-and-pork mixture in the center and folds the cabbage into a roll the size of a baby's fist. Huang says the chef describes this dish on the menu using the character that suggests the Chinese practice of women binding their feet to keep them small. "At one time it was popular. They figured men liked to hold their feet, to cuddle them or kiss them, whatever," Huang explains. "He used that character: 'small but delicate cabbage roll.'"
When Lei brings the rolls to the table, his stern face gives way to a bare crack of a smile. With every dish he presents, he utters a proud monosyllable that transcends language: "Eh?" Translation: "Step back and let me show you how it's done."
The first time I arrived without a translator, Lei glanced up from his cutting board, looking more than a little perturbed. I took this as a bad sign. Five-inch cleaver in hand, he was carving a duck breast. Some sauce was cooking in a wok. As I watched, he swept a tasting finger through the liquid like a bear grabbing a salmon and poked it into his mouth.
He looked my way, then resumed cutting. I held up a five-page Xerox his thirteen-year-old daughter's English translation of his menu which Lei had dug out of a storage box for me a few days earlier. At the top it reads, "Chao Chou Cuisine: For Food Order Outside the Menu Please Call for Prices." (Even the dishes that are listed on the menu have no prices.) He nodded, noncommittal. Taking a roasted duck from a tray, he placed it on his cutting board and chopped off its head.
In the dining room, a lone patron, a middle-aged man, was reading the St. Louis Chinese American News and slurping what looked to be a seafood soup. Occasionally he'd stop and ladle a refresher from a serving pot on his table. When Lei came out to the front a short time later, I pointed to an item on the menu, "Buddha Hand with Pork Bones," and grunted. He grunted back and got to work. Ten minutes later he delivered a plate piled with ribs that had been hacked to the size of knuckles, in a tangy sauce redolent of ginger and scallions. Buddha Hand turned out to be an aromatic citrus fruit that looks like a sea anemone and smells strongly of lemon zest.
While I gnawed my ribs, Lei returned to the kitchen and commenced pounding away with his cleaver. It sounded like he was carving up an elephant.
When I asked a translator to tell Lei I wanted to write a story about him, he knit his brow in that way he has. Inviting Americans into his world would pose problems, he said. I said I understood and that I'd be careful. He paused. "You write whatever you see fit," he said.
Johnny Wang is an attorney at Lashly & Baer who specializes in commercial litigation. Away from the law office, he specializes in food. It came as no surprise that his strong opinions about food extend to Chinese cuisine, but I was perplexed to hear him say he's not keen on the local renditions thereof. St. Louis is generally regarded as having a decent Chinese-dining scene, particularly on Olive Boulevard in University City. Not so, according to Wang. With a few exceptions, he told me, St. Louis Chinese is heavily Americanized, oversweetened to please the dull Western (or worse, Midwestern) palate.
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