Stinky tofu Sichuan style in hot pot at La Mei Zi. BECKY STEIN PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo: Becky Stein
Photo: Becky Stein

Familiar comforts, challenging tastes at La Mei Zi on Buford Highway

The offerings at Asian Square on Buford Highway tend to overwhelm me. There are so many options: a crispy banh mi at Quoc Huong, the rich soup floating with fish heads at Mamak, the sweet pineapple buns at Hong Kong Bakery, the savory char siu at Ming’s BBQ. Heck, even the doughnuts at Sweet Hut call my name. I tend to just stop at Quoc Huong and get a banh mi like usual, rather than make a difficult decision and explore the rest of the lot.

All of this is a partial explanation for why I’ve been to this strip mall so many times, but only recently noticed La Mei Zi, a Taiwanese-Sichuan restaurant that’s been open for a year. It’s located all the way in the back of the parking lot! You’re going to have to pass up a lot of good food to get there. You should.

I may be a little behind on La Mei Zi, but I’ve spent plenty of time playing catch-up in recent weeks. Somehow, my meals all begin the same, at a booth in the corner that affords me a full view of the room.

When business is quiet, this room isn’t much to look at, just some nondescript booths, big round tables and a long banquet where a buffet is set for weekend lunches. (Stick to the menu, I’d say.) But when the room fills up, as it tends to do in the evenings, and the lights are dimmed, the place feels warm and genuine, full of steaming pots of tea and warm bowls of rice and generously portioned plates.

I always order one of those pots of tea and with it, a friendly server always delivers a little plate of steamed wood ear mushrooms soaked in vinegar and laced with threads of ginger. It is a pleasant little amuse-bouche, soft but crunchy, mild but with just enough of a flavor kick. After that, my meals are always quite different.

That’s more the result of my own interest than any change in the kitchen. La Mei Zi has a menu that can lead in several different directions. There are the familiar Americanized Chinese stir-fry dishes: General Tso’s chicken, broccoli and beef … Though I’m not sure why you’d come for that.

When I’ve been looking for easy crowd-pleasers, I tend toward the braised beef and scallion rolls. It is as it sounds, a tender pile of beef wrapped in a flaky scallion pancake and spiked with a bit of hoisin sauce. The pork belly buns are generously portioned and topped with pickles and cilantro, apparently more in Taiwanese tradition than the miniaturized versions made popular by Momofuku.

Likewise, I can’t imagine any palate that would turn down the minced pork that La Mei Zi serves over noodles or rice. It is a rich, savory meat sauce that douses the noodles and chopped bok choy, as I understand it, about as common as Taiwanese home cooking gets. That makes a lot of sense to me, because when La Mei Zi serves that meat sauce over rice with mustard greens and a fried pork chop, I have that kind of comfort-food feeling that reminds me of a Southern meat-and-three joint.

The part of La Mei Zi’s menu that intrigues me, though, are a number of challenging dishes that I’ve rarely encountered. Bitter melon, stinky tofu, spicy pork intestine: These are familiar, I imagine, if you grew up around them, but, for the rest of us, they’re acquired tastes.

Should you be so interested, though, none of those adjectives are deceptive. The dish of bitter melon and anchovy served here looks so mild and friendly, a plate of green hunks doused in a thick sauce flecked with little white noodles. But look closer: Those little white noodles are actually anchovies, and you’ll make out their little black eyes. I’ve never said this about a dish before, but the anchovies are the mild part. The bitter melon truly is bitter, cooked ever so slightly so that it still has a squashlike crunch and a strong bitter finish in flavor. My first few bites were distinctly challenging, but the flavor grew on me. By the end of the meal, I couldn’t stop eating it.

Stinky tofu and, likewise, the pork intestine are only for the brave. My server, in fact, made some effort to dissuade me from ordering them, even in the strong masking flavors of a Sichuan-style hot pot. The tofu is fermented until it produces an odor that can only be described as unflattering, but a funky flavor that some liken to blue cheese. Maybe so. The intestine, though it has a fine, clean flavor, also possesses a slight aroma that may prove simply unpalatable to many.

Both were quite the experience, something that I’ll consider trying again, though I can’t say I gravitated to them the same way I did the bitter melon. If going for the hot pot, I will probably stick with the Sichuan beef.

But on the meals where I seek comfort, rather than a challenge, I’ll probably just order the three-cup chicken, a traditional Taiwanese dish that takes its name from the sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine that flavor it. La Mei Zi serves it with heapings of basil, ginger and garlic, all sauteed in that rich sauce. Or perhaps the mapo tofu with pork, the spicy Sichuan classic that La Mei Zi does an admirable rendition of. Or maybe the lamb with leeks, a finely flavored stir-fry that sings with notes of coriander and heat.

You get my point, there’s as much comfort as challenge available at La Mei Zi. You can decide. I’m glad I finally made it to the back of Asian Square.