Chinatown Confidential

The Chiu Chow cuisine of Meng Lei.

In this fashion he goes through a half-dozen ducks a day, some roasted, others boiled in lo soi. Lei has served me roast duck on a bed of flash-fried Chinese spinach. He has wrapped duck meat, taro and shrimp in a bundle and fried it in a soft tempura batter. He is most proud of his Chao Lyan roasted duck, which is always available. This preparation involves roasting the bird, then frying it in oil in order to render a crisp but silken skin. The roasting bastes the bird with a gentle glaze of soy and ginger; from the wok it receives an infusion of finely chopped scallions (mainly the greens) and Szechuan peppercorns. When consumed in quantity, the latter cause a minty, oddly addictive numbing sensation in the mouth.

Lei says that if he tried to serve his twice-roasted duck to gourmands in Macao, "they would laugh." The traditional version, he explains, is made with goose. "Because goose is not as common in America, I prepare it with duck," he says.

Like everything Lei cooks, the duck would draw raves if presented in fancier surroundings. But the chef prefers to work alone, and on a small scale. His wife, Cheng, is his only assistant. She works at a print shop and heads to the restaurant for the dinner "rush." But she doesn't go anywhere near the stove. She serves and buses. He cooks. The average price of an entrée is $10 or so. I only paid more when I special-ordered a crab entrée, the fixings for which cost Lei $30. Even then, a meal that served seven cost $150. A feast for four typically runs about $50. Much of his trade comes via takeout orders.

Crab with Ginger and Green Onion
Jennifer Silverberg
Crab with Ginger and Green Onion
Jennifer Silverberg

Details

Food stylist: Mary K. Sutkus

Johnny Wang learned about Lei's restaurant from his mom, who heard about it from a friend. Lei does advertise, in the St. Louis Chinese American News, copies of which are piled by the restaurant's door, mixed in with old copies of ESPN The Magazine. But he prefers to remain under the radar. He worries that if Americans were to read about his restaurant, they might descend en masse. "Once the article comes out, I might be disappointed, because it will bring me tens or hundreds of customers and I have no manpower to serve those people," he says.

Meng Lei has thought about expanding, but he is disinclined to do so. More people wouldn't necessarily be a good thing. "I would need some help in the kitchen," Lei says. "And nobody else in St. Louis knows this style of cooking."

In his role as Chinese Chamber of Commerce booster, Huang has long urged Lei to enlist his daughter's help in translating his menu into English, and to add a few more tables. But Lei hasn't heeded the advice. Opines Huang: "The mentality that he has, that he only wants to do business with the Chinese community, I believe is totally wrong. Caucasians are the majority here. If you want to only do business with Asians, you're going to miss a whole lot of potential customers. He ought to set up and do business with both."

Huang translates to Lei what he has just told me, and there is silence. Finally the chef mumbles a response.

Translates Huang: "He says, 'Let me make my own decisions.'"

"There's something I respect about that," Fred Ferretti says when told of the exchange. "He deserves accolades for sticking with his style." Ferretti goes on to tell of a New York Times food critic who wrote a rave review of a restaurant whose owner spoke no English. "It was in Chinatown," Ferretti recalls. "She walked in and had a nice dinner. She wrote about it and gave it three stars. The poor son of a bitch was besieged. He couldn't keep up with all the Gucci shoes that showed up. He didn't know what the hell to do."

"It is not easy to start a little restaurant like this and so stubbornly keep the traditional taste," adds Washington University anthropologist Jian Leng. "This restaurant hasn't adapted to the American style of Chinese food yet, but we cannot promise it won't happen in the future. He only has one daughter to support and his wife works during the daytime to help support them, so he really doesn't feel it is necessary to expand his business. Adapting his food to Western people's tastes is not the need for him. Therefore his restaurant is unique."

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo says one option would be to compromise. "He could add a few tables and put people on a waiting list. Tell him that," she suggests. "Tell him he could hire someone who speaks English to answer the phone and make a waiting list. That way he won't get so upset. They could say, 'I don't have a table for you now, but I do in two weeks from today.'"

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