In anticipation of tonight’s screening of Take Out with take-out at MOCA came an inevitable revisit to the foods of Chinatown. One institution of Chinatown cuisine stood out in particular: Mei Lai Wah Coffeehouse.
Coffeehouses in Chinatown were the earliest form of eateries frequented by the Chinese in New York. Much like the taverns and coffeehouses in Europe before the Printing Revolution, these Chinatown coffeehouses served as gathering places for the community to catch up on the latest news. The first wave of Chinese immigrants, mostly from Toisan in Canton (Guangdong) Province, sought out jobs, debated politics and traded gossip in these hole-in-the-wall joints over roast pork buns and coffee or tea.
Mei Lai Wah Coffeehouse, opened in 1968 by two Toisanese men, is one of the old school coffeehouses that is still around. Several years ago, MOCA member Mel Young shared his childhood memories of Mei Lai Wah with the Museum:
“This old-style tea parlor/coffeehouse has been around [for decades]. The owners have never changed their winning formula − cheap, delicious pastries, dim sum (nothing fancy, but all freshly steamed), and strong, old-fashioned coffee. There is always a mob of people getting take-out at the counter.
The tables and counter stools look like they have seen much wear over the decades. The Formica tabletops are well-patinated and the stools have been “reupholstered” with vinyl tablecloth material strapped down with metal wire. This place has a distinctly masculine feeling to it; you won’t see many women eating here on their own. There always used to be a haze of cigarette smoke in there until smoking in restaurants was banned.
Mei Lai Wah is famous for their egg custard tarts. The crust is light, slightly oily and deliciously flaky, setting them apart from the characterless ones sold at some of the modern Chinese bakeries. They were a nice treat after Chinese school on Sundays.”
That well-worn atmosphere is no more, though the beloved recipes still exist. In 2008 the original owners retired and Mei Lai Wah underwent a facelift. It is now Mei Li Wah Bakery, a brightly lit establishment with baked goods lined up along wooden shelves served by men and women in orange polo shirts. Happily, you can still find their signature cha-siu roast pork buns (baked sweet dough filled with barbequed roast pork) and egg tarts (egg custard in a pastry shell.)
Both dishes are distinctly Cantonese. In fact, when people referred to Chinese food before the 1980s, they were really talking about Cantonese food. The cuisine from other parts of China had yet to make its way to the American public. That has changed over the past few decades, and today’s New York has traditional foods and flavors from all over China.
Are you curious about the emergence of Chinese regional cuisines in America’s dining culture? Take MOCA’s walking tour From Coffehouses to Banquet Halls on Saturday, December 18 at 1pm. For tickets and more info click here.
Director of Education and Public Programs