Asian... from scratch... for cheap | Rock Candy

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Asian... from scratch... for cheap

Posted By on Tue, Jul 19, 2011 at 9:16 AM

THICK & SILKY:  Hot & Sour Soup at Mei Li
Eureka Springs is known for a lot of fantastic eateries. There’s great French, Latino, Panamanian, Italian, local origin, steakhouse, road food and pastries. Until now, there really hasn’t been a good place for Asian dining.

However, Mei Li Cuisine hasn’t just brought great Asian food to the Little Switzerland of Arkansas. It’s done that… at prices that would be hard to beat anywhere in the state.

My first exposure to Mei Li was through take-out on a Saturday night a while back. Too pooped to dine out, we called around several places until we finally found a place that would pick up the phone at 9 p.m. We didn’t have a menu, but the gentleman we spoke with gave us several good choices. We ended up going with Pad Thai, and when we went to pick up our singular order were surprised to find that the dish plus side items equaled less than ten bucks.

This latest trip, we rolled in late on a Wednesday evening, exhausted from a road trip. It was 8:45 and we figured they were getting ready to close, so the plan was to see if the kitchen was still open and if so acquire more food to take back with us. Instead, we were ushered into the restaurant and told to have a seat. We made our choices quickly and waited.

Out came our soups… and usually, soups are nothing to write home about. They’re customary accompaniments to any Asian-influenced meal. I’d ordered Egg Drop Soup, and was startled to find that instead of the usual hot runny mess of protein I had received a hearty, thick and rich soup that sat gelatinously atop my spoon. It was rich and decadent, almost silky in texture on the tongue and served up with fat air-filled noodles that just aren’t the norm. I was bragging on this to my dining companion, who thought I was nuts.

That is, until he tried his Hot and Sour Soup. We’re both used to this being a pork-based soup, but as we found out in this case it was a beef base full of fresh mushrooms, spices and scallions, once again very thick and hearty. The texture was also thick and silky here, and of such a startling nature we had to ask the waiter to send the kitchen our regards. My dining companion declared it the best hot and sour soup he’s tried.

Our entrees arrived, accompanied by hand-wrapped spring rolls that had just emerged from the fryer and which were fragrant and moist throughout. There was a nice smack of fresh ginger in each one that belied any need to accompany such with the proffered red sweet and sour sauce.

Mine was the Thai Red Curry, a surprisingly lighter version of the dish than I’ve encountered elsewhere. I was taken aback by the freshness of the chicken, the crisp bite of the vegetables (no preparation in advance here) and the subtle sauce. In fact, the sauce was surprising to me — with such clear fresh notes of coconut and lemongrass, ginger and fish sauce and a touch of tomato. It was… it was clean and simple. It came accompanied by steamed rice (I was given the option of fried rice as well).

My dining companion had returned to the Pad Thai, this time ordering it with beef instead of chicken. It came out fragrant enough to wake both of us up, with not just that strong presence of peanut but decadently loud notes of tamarind, fish sauce, coriander and red chili peppers. It was hearty and the flavors just blended… just enough to be coherent. Yet still there were these pleasant little bursts of different flavors throughout.

We sent our compliments back to the kitchen, and the chef came to join us. Turns out, she and her family are immigrants who came to America 30 some-odd years ago. They had been in Columbus, OH before venturing south to Eureka Springs. Their timing was good — the former restaurant in the space, Café Soleil, was being run by a gentleman who lived in Fayetteville who was finding the commute difficult. Café Soleil closed in the fall, and a few weeks later in November Mei Li opened. All the recipes are made from scratch — which is why I could differentiate those individual flavors like fresh tamarind and fish sauce. Excellent.

And I have to tell you, the prices are phenomenal. There are 12 different preparations ranging from the Pad Thai and Thai Red Curry we sampled to Kung Pao, Mongolian, Stir-Fry Cashew and Garlic Stir-Fry that are priced according to the protein used — from $5.95 for vegetable to $6.95 for chicken, pork or tofu to $7.50 for beef. There are also specialties like Almond Boneless Chicken ($6.95) to Lemon Orange Chicken ($7.95), and appetizers like Cream Cheese Puffs, Firecracker Shrimp and Steak Kebabs. Except for a limited sushi menu, nothing on the menu is above $10 and the portions are substantial.

We were never rushed, though we were embarrassed we ended up staying far past closing time. We were engaged in conversations with the chef and our waiter and we just lost track of time. We have decided we’ll be making another stop through on our next Eureka Springs visit, specifically so I can try that Lemon Orange Chicken.

You’ll find Mei Li Cuisine on Highway 62 east of downtown. It’s open for lunch and dinner every day. (479) 363-6678.

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