photo credit: Andrea D'Agosto
Zen Mei Bistro
We’re not fans of romanticizing the past. Truly, is there anything worse than someone who claims to be “born in the wrong generation?” But Zen Mei Bistro is more than just a throwback. This cozy Cantonese restaurant, located on the corner of Yale and Alpine in Chinatown, is a reminder that life can—and perhaps should—be slower, more peaceful. Things here are as old-school as it gets: Baked pork chops are served on porcelain plates. Hot tea arrives by the kettle. Receipts are scrawled by hand. Only cash is accepted. And everyone gets a complimentary soup.
Will you eat the best Chinese food of your life here? No. But a meal at Zen Mei offers something just as valuable: a calm, comfortable space where emails, to-do lists, Twitter feeds, and the name "Crypto.com Arena" feel meaningless. It's a welcomed escape.
To enter the restaurant, ring the doorbell (as the charming hand-written sign instructs) and wait to be welcomed in. Once inside, Zen Mei Bistro has the energy of a classic neighborhood diner—formica tables, fluorescent lighting, a fridge full of sodas that nearby school children raid every so often—mixed with auspicious touches that reflect the neighborhood it’s in. A simple shrine rests above the cash register, a laughing Buddha sits on the mini fridge. It’s likely you’ll eat here while the restaurant is completely empty or sit next to regulars who’ve been coming in for over 30 years.
Prices haven’t changed much since Zen Mei opened in the ‘90s. Of the entire 100+ item menu, a whole Peking roast duck is the most expensive dish at $32.75. From kung pao shrimp and pan-fried sole, to shredded pork chow mein, everything falls under the $15 mark or significantly lower if you come for lunch. Like many other Chinatown restaurants, Zen Mei is home to ‘chop-suey’ Chinese dishes like orange chicken and honey walnut shrimp, but the real specialty here is Cantonese cuisine. Particularly, a rich variety of seafood dishes. Fried lobster—also known as ‘dragon prawns’—are served with the shell still intact, the lovely dark red color reminding us of Los Angeles sunsets whenever the smog is really bad.
For an easy breakfast, order the scrambled eggs and shrimp, a simple dish that’s runny and flavored with scallions. And our favorite here is the BBQ pork wonton soup: a massive bowl filled with big, brain-like wontons that are wrapped so tightly, they look shriveled, showing off a wealth of meat inside. It’s served alongside thin slices of pork and silky egg noodles, a warm and hefty dish to order whenever you need a hug from your mom but remember she lives way too far away for that.
It’s all very traditional—not in a showy way, but anyone who knows anything about Chinese food knows that it’s all about balance and harmony. Based on the Taoist principle of yin and yang, everything, from flavor to texture to aroma, should not only be contrasted but also complemented by its surroundings. This is demonstrated simply in Zen Mei’s plate set-up: there's a strangely pleasing sensation, something akin to zen, that happens when you look at the mash-up of green porcelain chopsticks, plates outlined in red, and milky white bowls on the table. Order when the time seems right, pay when you’ve decided to be done. At Zen Mei Bistro, there’s really no need to rush—everything happens when it’s supposed to.
#196 BBQ Pork/Soy Sauce Chicken and Wonton with Noodle Soup
We’re no doctors, but this soup is so nourishing, we feel like it could cure…the common cold? Feelings of homesickness? That very specific emptiness that comes with being alive? A large bowl contains all our favorite things in the world: sliced BBQ pork, soy sauce chicken, big ol’ wontons (pinched at the top like a vintage coin purse), and a clear, heart-warming broth.
#27 Lobster with Ginger and Green Onion Sauce
Reserve this dish for fancy occasions, such as celebrating a big promotion, or the fact that you finally updated your insurance information with your therapist (it’s been months, hasn’t it). This lobster is full luxury—still encased in the shell, tender white meat is coated in corn flour and tossed with a bit of ginger, scallions, and soy sauce to create a wonderful sticky texture. It’s a bit sweet from the soy sauce; crunchy from the pan fry. There’s yin, there’s yang, and plenty of meat to go around.
#50 Shrimp with Scrambled Egg
Like the French style, eggs are slow cooked over low heat to create a runny texture. Then, marinated shrimp and rice wine join the mix, along with a few scallions for garnish. It’s a simple, upgraded version of the scrambled eggs you’d make at home.
#127 Fried Tofu with Crispy Salt
A surprise hit! We honestly ordered this because we were thinking “Maybe we should eat less meat,” and were pleasantly surprised. Squares of tofu are deep-fried and uniformly cut, then served with a hot pot of rice. And we literally mean a pot—it arrives in a bright-red basin and can feed three-to-four people.
Singapore-Style Stir Fry Rice Noodle
A lunch-only special. As you could probably tell from the name, it’s a bit of a fusion dish—thin egg noodles are stir fried with what seems like a mountain of curry powder. Noodles arrive thickly coated and almost dry. If you need something to jolt you awake in the middle of the day, this spicy dish should do the trick.