The jalapeño prawns arrived from the kitchen heaped up on a platter and hot in more ways than one. The peppers were simply split open up to the stem and fried alongside slivers of white onion until they blistered and blackened. Some of the jalepeños were more lively than others, but people who order a dish called “jalapeño prawns” aren’t exactly looking for something tame.
The big pink and white crustaceans, shells and tails conveniently removed, were firm crescents of perfection. The crowning touch was the thin, savory concoction of soy, oyster and black bean sauces. It was a simple, satisfying dish chock-full of flavor for less than $10.
This is the way of things at Mein, a restaurant from the same owners as Tiger Den. Both are located in Houston’s Chinatown area. Tiger Den is well-respected for its ramen, and Mein deserves the same level of regard for its Cantonese fare.
In a sense, Mein is the yang to Tiger Den’s yin. Where Tiger Den has a dark, sleek, Blade Runner-esque atmosphere, Mein is bright, open and lit by abstract fixtures and antique chandeliers overhead. The ample lighting makes it easier to appreciate the artistic touches, like wall paintings of lovely, fresh-faced actresses of the glory days of old Shanghai, a motorcycle covered in Chinese characters and the stark, clean lines of metal wall hangings and fixtures.
As the name indicates, noodles are a house specialty. They’re made from scratch and often served dry. The meats, vegetables and herbs are added to the top of a bed of noodles, and the broth is served separately. Diners can add as much or as little broth as they want. (Sometimes less is more.) One compelling example, the house wonton noodle soup, includes thin egg noodles, pork belly, soft-boiled egg and pork- and shrimp-stuffed wantons both steamed and fried. After you eagerly polish off the egg, pork belly and noodles, it’s rewarding to hunt down the minced pork and compellingly crispy lardons still left in the bottom of the bowl.
Getting consistently good textures in house-made noodles is tricky, but Mein seems to have mastered it. The restaurant offers both thick and thin wheat-based egg noodles, and the firmness was just right every time. A hank of thin noodles was the base for another interesting dish, Phnom Penh noodles, a combination of thinly sliced pork liver, minced pork, sliced pork loin and a meatball. Bean sprouts added a nice snap, while cilantro provided the needed fresh herbal touch. A squeeze from the accompanying lime wedge brought a welcome citrusy pop.
Meat lovers will gravitate to the roasted meat dishes, like crispy duck served moo shu-style with thin, savory Chinese crepes. Unlike some of Mein’s other courses, this one is more of a single serving, since it comes with only one duck leg. (It also costs only $7, so that’s fair.) A little manual labor is needed to get the meat off the drumstick, but it’s quite fun to pile shreds of duck into papery crepes and top it off with green onion and a little sweet, pungent hoisin sauce. The brave will want to add a dash of the sinus-clearing Chinese mustard, too.
There are several small starters that range between $4 and $5.50, including braised tofu that’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. It’s an ample block cut into slices and adorned with cilantro and fine slivers of green onion. Braising the neutral tofu in soy glaze not only adds salt and a touch of sweetness, it also does great things for the texture. The centers of the slices become as soft and pliable as New York cheesecake.
We had only one problem at Mein. The menus are woefully out of date. Five of the dishes we wanted to order were no longer available. Those included the preserved meats claypot rice, the chicken claypot, the shredded garlic pork and the braised innards with duck liver and gizzards. Ah well. It’s not like there aren’t a ton of other wonderful dishes to choose from. A server promised us that updated menus will be out soon.
Mein is still waiting for the City of Houston to issue its liquor license. That would be good because the restaurant’s full-flavored food would pair wonderfully with many different drinks, including sake, beer, soju and even certain types of white wine. In the meantime, take advantage of the BYOB option.
Even in the absence of a liquor license, there are some very interesting choices. The hot green tea is strong without being bitter, and the same goes for the oolong. There is fresh coconut juice here, with thin layers of tender young coconut to enjoy along with the refreshing liquid, as well as a really intriguing cold tea made of prunella vulgaris. The herb is commonly called “self-heal” and is used as a home remedy for wounds. In China, it’s also considered a liver and gallbladder stimulant and is even given to cancer patients. Whether or not there’s any truth to the medicinal claims, prunella vulgaris makes for a surprisingly refreshing, full-bodied tea with only a trace of bitterness.
The Hong Kong-style lava toast is the must-order dessert. It looks deceptively like a grilled cheese sandwich, but the filling is actually made with sweetened, preserved egg yolk. It’s a thicker, richer and more elastic filling than the egg custard used in tarts served during dim sum. (Imagine that all the cloying sweetness is removed from the yellow center of a Cadbury Creme Egg and magically converted into real food. That’s in the ballpark of what the lava toast filling is like.) A pat of butter and a warm drizzle of maple syrup add a final touch of sweet decadence. The end result is marvelous.
Mein is not a fancy or romantic date spot. Instead, the brightly lit space is much more conducive to gatherings of loved ones, lunches, weeknight dinners and casual dates. It would be wonderful to bring a group of people, order several of the inexpensive dishes and have a big feast.
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Those accustomed to impersonal, dismissive or condescending service in this part of town are in for a real treat. It’s excellent at Mein. The waitstaff is helpful, friendly, happy to answer ingredient questions and doesn’t assume diners are ignorant when they order more spicy or unusual dishes. The food comes out incredibly fast, too, making Mein a truly viable option for a quick lunch for workers in the area. (Also, its location on the side street of Clarewood means it’s possible to avoid the perpetual traffic snarls on Bellaire by taking the back streets.)
Mein’s web site says it serves “everyday food,” and that perspective is its strength. The dishes are uncomplicated, hearty and inexpensive. The focus is on perfecting individual ingredients so that, when combined, they coalesce into dishes greater than the sum of their parts. It is a successful concept sure to stand Houstonians in good stead for years to come.
9630 Clarewood, 713-923-7488. Hours: 11 a.m. ?to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. ?to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Braised tofu $4
Charsiu pork $6.50
Crispy duck leg $7
Phnom Penh noodles $7.50
XO sauce noodles $7.50
House wonton noodles $9.50
Lava toast $4
Pandan crullers $4.50
Oolong or green tea $2
Prunella vulgaris tea $2.50
Young coconut juice $3.50