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Friday, March 16, 2012

Mee Heong's Spare Ribs: The Dish That Almost Got Away

Posted By on Fri, Mar 16, 2012 at 10:30 AM

The $4 chicken at Mee Heong. The spare ribs are even better. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • The $4 chicken at Mee Heong. The spare ribs are even better.

​Rice Plate Journal is a yearlong project to canvass Chinatown, block by block, discovering the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price: $10.

All right, I admit it: In my survey of Chinatown, I've skipped a couple of restaurants (not to mention all the meals I've decided not to write about). And one of them was Mee Heong. Back in the beginning days of Rice Plate Journal, I poked my head into the bakery, which is dimly lit and vaguely gray in color, and spotted a bakery case stocked with a tray of buns, and two guys bent over big plates of rice. I backed out, walked down to the next restaurant on the strip, and forgot all about the bakery. 


That is, until I talked to Frank Jang, who schooled me on what I'd missed. "It's a real hole-in-the-wall run by a father and son," he told me, "and they only make two dishes -- chicken and spare ribs -- but they're good! They probably serve 300 plates a day."

So a friend and I went back to Powell and Broadway for lunch, stepped back into the narrow bakery, and spotted a sign: Spare ribs $4, chicken and mushrooms $4. There was a single tray of cocktail buns in the long, vacant display counter, and a hot water dispenser with two off-duty taps. A shaved-headed dude in a baseball cap looked us over, took our order -- one of each -- and pointed us back to the metal teapots near the kitchen. On the other side of the doorway, an older man was taking a cleaver to some chickens, working on a circular wooden cutting board that was concave enough from use that it could have held a quart of soup.

A couple minutes later, we were presented with two mounds of rice, each big enough for a white family of four. The surface was drizzled with a lightly sweetened soy-based sauce, and from the rim of the heap, bits of meat and mushroom poked out. I began shoveling into mine with my plastic fork, unearthing curls of Chinese sausage, long-steamed black mushroom, and chunks of chicken. I ate slowly, feeling for the tiny bones scattered amid the grains of rice and savoring the chicken, so tender the mushrooms seemed rubbery in comparison.

The spare ribs, flecked with black beans, were even better: All the collagen and gristle had melted away in the steamer, and the soft pork meat slipped away from its bones. I'd occasionally be struck by a faint impression of ginger, as well as sharp flashes of green onions; here and there I'd bite into a salty fermented black bean, with its notes of cacao and Parmesan. It wasn't refined cooking, by any means, but it was practiced, sure-footed -- the work of specialist.

As the pile of bones on the napkin next to our plates slowly rose and the heap of rice diminished, two waves of customers -- older couples and twentysomething guys, mainly -- filled in the seats around us, ate, and paid up. Finally, there was no more we could take in, so I downed the last sip of tea, handed the owner $8, and headed out.

Mee Heong: 1343 Powell (at Broadway), 781-3266.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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