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When I am through with this industry -- when I no longer feel (as I sometimes still do) the strong magnetic pull of kitchen life, the strange urge to put on my old whites and checks and stumble blearily into the 5 a.m. quiet of a house not yet awake; when I've eaten my fill of truffles and foie gras, when I look only with scorn on the delicate shoots of a frisee salad; when I've said all I have to say on the evils of celery, the joy of full-fat butter and the pure sensuality of melon and prosciutto -- I will eat nothing but Asian food for the rest of my life.
3090 W. Alameda Ave.
Denver, CO 80219
Region: Southwest Denver
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Shrimp and pork dumplings (4):
Hong Kong egg rolls (2): $1.70
Water chestnut cake (3): $1.70
Baked pork bun (2): $1.70
Rice noodle crepe: $2.20
Curry squid: $3.50
Sweet rice in lotus leaf: $3.50
Stir fry chow fun: $7.95
Crispy fried intestine: $3.50
Crispy pork: $3.95
Shrimp dumpling soup: $5.50
Vietnamese coffee: $2
I will probably make exceptions here and there for good Italian (twice a year, no more) and la cuisine grandmère-- cassoulet, moules provençal and their like. There will be the occasional craving for saag paneer (without which life has no meaning) or an honest-to-Jesus bloody-rare cheeseburger, and when those urges seize me, I will follow my gut and find them. But my cuisine d'être will be that of Indochina and the mysterious East.
It's Easter Sunday at Mee Yee Lin, and I'm staring down at a half-eaten plate of crispy fried intestine, thinking just exactly how to describe it. I know that I have to do proper justice to both the critter that died and gave up its guts and the cook who handled those guts and put them on my plate, but I've found the English language sadly deficient in descriptives for fried digestive machinery. Porkerific? How 'bout intestational? The critic's standard linguistic tool kit just isn't up to the task.
Other people eat this, I tell myself. Other people eat this every day and enjoy it a lot -- otherwise, it wouldn't be on Mee Yee Lin's 75-item-strong dim sum menu. I've ordered it because I'm curious, because odds are that someday I'll be offered crispy fried intestine somewhere else and I'd like to be able to compare and contrast it with other crispy fried intestines I've sampled. I wonder if it's a delicacy -- that mythical "best bit," like squid ink or field mouse or flounder eye (all of which I've eaten) -- and worry that if I don't try it, I might be missing out on something great.
As it turns out, crispy fried intestine tastes exactly like crispy fried intestine. Like how you'd think that something's guts, cooked until crunchy, would taste. Not bad, but definitely not great.
Mee Yee Lin is bright and busy this Sunday afternoon. It's bright and busy on Saturday afternoons, too, and weekdays around lunchtime. With only two dozen tables (a couple of the cavernous dim sum joints nearby can seat hundreds), it's never really quiet, but on weekend mornings the crowds can sometimes stack up ten deep, waiting at the front door. Families with kids, families without kids, groups of seven, ten, twelve, all descend on this restaurant in the same sort of traditional way that non-Asian church-goers flock to Country Buffet on Sunday, or hockey fans gather at sports bars every Monday. The space is cute, with the understated floral motif and grinning ceramic kitty sculptures you find at many Chinese restaurants, but it's more comfortable. The place has the broken-in feel of a well-loved diner -- filmed with a patina of good vibes, all of its sharp corners rubbed off by years of service and the eternal Brownian motion of customers coming in, customers eating, customers leaving full and happy.
The staff moves with practiced grace between boisterous tables, close set and constantly being pushed together to seat twenty, broken up to seat three, and pushed together again for the big party coming in for the family reunion. The waitresses smile and delicately brave the thresher of clicking chopsticks to bring in more plates -- fifth, sixth and seventh courses of curried squid, balls of sweet rice wrapped in lotus leaves, big platters of stir-fried chow fun. One stops by the table next to ours to politely inquire if the poor guy in the NASCAR T-shirt would like anything besides the plates of white rice soaked in soy sauce that he's been eating for hours.
At more raucous dim sum restaurants, you order your meal by shouting and pointing at a favored plate on a passing cart or moving by on a conveyor belt. Mee Yee Lin works sushi bar-style, giving every table a paper menu and pencil so diners can pick precisely what they want and how much of it they'd like. That works fine, but it eliminates some of the adventure. My first taste of duck's-blood gravy (less gross than it sounds -- kind of like gamey, salty chocolate milk) was the result of some over-anxious pointing at one of those cart-pushing dim sum parlors. And I once joined a dozen Chinese, Mexican and Sri Lankan line cooks for midnight dim sum and found myself eating the floral garnish off a plate because I wasn't totally sure what part was food and what wasn't. I didn't want to embarrass myself by refusing anything that might be remotely considered edible -- and I paid for that culinary bravado later.
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