Giving Take-Out Chinese a Soul

by Sean Kenniff
Aliza Elizarov
March 2015

Restaurant

It’s a delicate balance. Taking a beloved ethnic dish, breaking it down, and rebuilding it without obliterating its essence and the place it holds in the heart and mind of the guest. Two soulful Boston chefs have walked this line to much success, replacing what’s in the diner’s heart with an even better version of their favorite dish.

“I’ve played with everything from Italian tomato-braised tripe and Mexican mole negro to Southeast Asian curries,” says Chef Tony Messina of Uni, who recently took aim at remodeling Chinese take-out fav beef with broccoli, with careful abandon. The key to his beef with broccoli-inspired dish is the swap of the mystery-grade beef for A5 wagyu, and the funky textural contrast of fried lichen along with petite dehydrated pieces of broccoli. Messina dehydrates the lichen and then rehydrates it with Castelvetrano olive brine for an umami-ful pop without the monosodium glutamate. “I like to elevate food, execute it properly, but still have a playful side,” says Messina. “At its soul, it’s beef with broccoli and garlic. The sweetness of the dish comes from the sukiyaki purée.”

Sukiyaki, the traditional Japanese sweet, soy-based beef broth, is flavor-packed at Uni. Messina uses charred scallions, garlic, dried mushrooms, sake, and mirin, among other ingredients, to make his plate clearing version. “Then I simply turn the broth into gel,” he says, before puréeing it.

American Chinese food is authentically Chinese in name only, but nonetheless, beef with broccoli is an ethnic food icon. Messina has taken in the take-out classic, cleaned it up, upgraded it, and made it more than it ever thought it could be. “If there’s ever an excuse for me to play with food, I get excited!”

At Mei Mei, Chef Max Hull says that his “experience with Chinese-American cuisine is limited and not at all tied to childhood memories. But the owners—siblings Andy, Mei, and Irene Li—have a number of classic Chinese-American dishes that are close to their hearts, for nostalgic reasons.” In the 1970s, the Li’s paternal grandparents literally wrote the book on Chinese food: The Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking, so there’s a deep well of tradition in the Li family that Hull can borrow from. “I enjoy reworking dishes like honey-walnut shrimp, mostly as a way to make something nice for those who hold them dear,” he says.  

Hull’s sweet, nutty, heartfelt WAM of a dish starts with the shrimp—shells and all. Once peeled, deveined, and kissed with salt, the ocean-sweet shrimp are cool-steamed in a 160˚F-combination oven. Honey comb candy and toasted walnuts add crunch to the dish, but Hull wanted something crispy. Enter the fried shrimp shells—“all we had to do was keep the cooks from snacking on them!”

At pick up, the shrimp and walnuts are warmed in butter than tossed in a house mayo made with Hull’s own walnut oil. All these elements wade waist deep into a shallow bowl of don’t-be-tarty-for-the-party honey-buttermilk sauce. “The buttermilk lightens the dish. Its acidity helps cut the sweetness a little bit as well,” says Hull. The honey-walnut shrimp is finished with romaine squares, garlic chives, and the honey comb candy and crispy shrimp shells. If Helen of Troy is the face that launched a thousand ships, then Hull’s honey-walnut shrimp is the dish that launched a thousand bites—on a sea sour-wonderful buttermilk sauce. Sweet, tangy, bitter, lush, fresh, savory … every bite is different, but addicting and banging on the taste buds. Hull has taken honey-walnut shrimp from the strip mall and Panda express to a paragon of Chinese-American food and crisp ingenuity.