Oh, hell, yeah
It was a cold, rainy Saint Patrick’s Day, as so many in Chicago are.
Many years ago, when my husband, Jack, and I were still living in the city, we frequented an Asian restaurant, called Mee Mah, that was just minutes from our apartment. The place was mid-sized and cozy, and we dined there at least once a week, sometimes, more.
The food was exceptional, as were the owners/staff. At some point, they stopped treating us like “customers” and more like “family.”
The restaurant offered up traditional Asian fare: Szechuan, Mandarin, Cantonese, etc., but Jack and I received the royal treatment in that the owner made extra-special dishes for us. Extraordinary gastronomic fare that wasn’t on the menu.
The regular menu items were sublime — the best damned egg rolls in the city — but the dishes whipped up by Joe Lee and his “girls” were unforgettable.
I was still eating meat back then so nothing was off-limits. I remember a sort of chopped chicken dish. On the bone, mind you, in a savory sauce that, when ladled over rice, made our taste buds do a happy dance.
Joe served up sausages and different types of greens and a fish baked in soy sauce with ginger that melted on the tongue.
Those were great days, with indelible memories. One, in particular, stands out. Since my hubby and I had never experienced dim sum, a sort of Chinese brunch with a variety of steamed dumplings and other dishes, Joe insisted on treating us. He took us to one of the premiere dim sum restaurants in Chinatown.
The place was packed. Servers scurried about, laden down with trays of succulent, steaming delights. From what I could see, dim sum was a kind of Cantonese Tapas, small plates (lots of them!) with bite-sized portions of food.
We tried damn near everything. Char Siu Bao, puffy little steamed buns filled with barbecue pork, Beef Balls, ground beef on bean curd skins and steamed, curried squid, Gow Gee, shrimp toast, Cantonese pan-fried dumplings — so much delicious food. And we ate every bit. It was a sensory whirlwind.
There were sweets, too: Mango or red-bean-flavored coconut pudding and dessert dumplings stuffed with bean paste. It would take hours to go through the entire array of dim sum delights.
That said, it was the dumplings that really got to me. Both savory and sweet. Their pillowy goodness provided just the right mouthfeel, the perfect chew. And there was something so comforting about them, especially on a raw, wet day.
In Chinese, dim sum translates to “touch the heart.” Nothing could be more apt.
According to "Lucky Peach," a food-zine, Cantonese dim sum culture began in tearooms in the latter half of the 19th century in the port city of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong after opium dens were banned throughout the country. (Dumplings or opium? You decide!)
Soon, an increasing number of travelers and traders would take breaks in these tea houses for a dim sum meal. As travelers moved on, the dim sum word spread far and wide, and gained popularity throughout the region, especially in Hong Kong.
Of course, now, dim sum can include dishes and traditions adopted from other parts of China. But, the culinary form — the tradition — remains the same.
After stuffing ourselves silly, filled to the gills with dumplings and sticky rice and beef balls and sausages and various soups and puddings — it was time to say goodbye to Joe. I believe the fact that we had such a wonderful time, and were open to trying everything, made his day. What a guy. I wish I knew how to say “mensch” in Cantonese.
After leaving the restaurant, Jack and I capped off St. Paddy’s Day with a stop at our neighborhood pub. It was filled to the rafters with drunk and soon-to-drunk, revelers.
We got a proper buzz on. Nothing too severe as we didn’t want to be hurling up all that extraordinary food the next day.
Jack and I had a couple of drinks, shared a couple of toasts and then we went home. It was a great day. One of the best, ever.
Thank you, Joe Lee. Wherever you are.
© Sherry McGuinn, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Sherry McGuinn is a slightly-twisted, longtime Chicago-area writer and award-winning screenwriter. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and numerous other publications. Sherry’s manager is currently pitching her newest screenplay, a drama with dark, comedic overtones and inspired by a true story.