The Family Unit
Mei Mei Street Kitchen
It’s been a hell of a week for the Mei Mei Street Kitchen crew. When they arrive at Washington Square Tavern for a post-prep beer, after a few harrowing days of outrunning Nemo and organizing teams to shovel out their parking spots (“Hashtag truck life,” Irene Li says, grinning), they come bearing chicken hearts on ice for the chef and two experimental macarons from the truck. One is pink-peppercorn cranberry, smoky sweet with a gentle bite; the other is black sesame, soft and vaguely savory. They both kick ass.
The Mei Mei Street Kitchen food truck, opened in April of last year, is run by the Li siblings — Andy, 31, Margaret (“Mei”), 30, and Irene, 22 — and Max Hull, Irene’s boyfriend and the “cheffiest of the group.” On the streets, they serve up a constantly changing menu of food-porn options, riffs on Chinese staples, and in-your-face flavor combinations. Remember the pork-liver paté cone topped with mustard whipped cream, pickle brine “sprinkles,” and a pickled cranberry?
“We grew up making scallion pancakes and putting cheese on them, you know? Not feeling like we had to adhere rigidly to some standard of Chinese cuisine,” Mei says. “It allows us to put out what we think tastes good, even if it isn’t traditional.”
Named for Andy’s two mei meis — “little sisters” in Chinese — the adored truck just came in third in online magazine Mobile Cuisine’s national poll for rookie food truck of the year. And the crew recently announced their imminent expansion to brick and mortar, with an opening tentatively slated for late spring or early summer.
“The brick-and-mortar space will allow us to do things that are a little more nuanced than what people have come to expect from street food,” Hull says, recalling the first asparagus dish they put out in spring: brined asparagus spears, lightly blowtorched, and served with a slow-poached egg and asparagus sauce.
“It was really subtle and delicious, but when you serve a dish like that, as good as it is, to someone who is expecting street food, nobody is happy.”
The chef community, at least, seems perpetually happy with Mei Mei’s contagious friendliness and no-holds-barred creativity. James Beard Award winner Ken Oringer spent two of his birthday meals — breakfast and lunch — at the truck this year.
“I still get butterflies when chefs talk to me,” Hull admits. He points innocently at his chest. “ ‘Oh, you’re speaking to me? Like I’m part of your community?’ But seriously, I’ve been really surprised at how helpful and welcoming everybody has been.”
“I’m waiting for someone to figure out that we have no experience and that we’re making it up as we go along!” Irene says, nodding. “For a long time, it was like, ‘When are people going to decide that they don’t want to pay us for our food?’ ”
When it comes to the future, Mei says the group wants to continue breaching the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, finding ways to apply the magic of a food-truck interaction — immediacy, intimacy — to their new pursuits.
“Food is such a connector,” she says. “It’s so exciting for us to think about ways to take advantage of that.”
Mei Mei Street Kitchen » meimeiboston.com