The thought of opening a restaurant isn’t something that’s on most people’s minds. Even if you like to cook, running a business, dealing with finances, customers, menus, and everything else that goes along with restaurant ownership, may not be on the top of your list. But with the rise of food trucks inBoston, more and more folks are taking their culinary skills to the streets.
Such is the case with Mei Mei Street Kitchen. Run by Brookline-raised siblings Margaret (who, incidentally, goes by Mei), Irene, and Andy Li, Mei Mei (which means “little sister” in Chinese) has been open for less than a year, but in that short time they have made quite an impression on the food truck scene.
The three were coming from different places before they decided to go into business together. Andy, the oldest sibling at age 31, had been the manager at a Legal Seafoods restaurant and then at Harvest in Cambridge. He loved working front of house, but wanted to bring his affinity for customer service to his own project.
Mei, 29, had just returned home from studying social entrepreneurship at London’s Imperial College. During her time abroad, she also found herself partnering with a friend to start a pop-up restaurant. They’d host meals at obscure sites throughout the city: on roof decks, abandoned tram depots, even underneath the railway arches by the Thames.
Irene, the youngest of the bunch, spent the majority of her teenage years and early twenties working on farms and learning how to source ingredients. Her education began during her junior year of high school, when she studied at The Mountain School in Vershire,Vermont, which teaches students to grow and harvest produce. Following this, Irene moved on to Cornell University in Ithaca,New York, and, just like her older sister, she began her own pop-up.
With their mutual love for food, it became clear that the Li siblings were destined to do something together. The question then became, what would the right project be?
“The timing was particularly fortuitous for us in that my sisters happened to be returning home at the same time from school and London, and it was quite a revelation for us to discover how our various strengths, interests, passions and experiences complemented one another.” Andy explained. “We were able to share the responsibilities and develop our concept as a group.”
When they began to discuss what the business would be, a variety of options came to mind. “We had talked about a popup restaurant project, but when we read about how Bostonwas trying to let food trucks flourish, it seemed like a natural choice,” Irene described.
“Watching Roxy’s on Food Network made us think a lot about whether we could perform on a food truck and how our skills would fit together.”
Since opening, Mei Mei’s goal has always been the same: to bring the foods from their childhood, authentic Chinese dishes with an Americanized twist, to the masses, and to do so using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.
Mei agrees that a food truck made the most sense for their first venture. “Opening a truck is a great way to have a much lower investment and it’s something that offers certain elements that a brick and mortar restaurant doesn’t, like the ability to go wherever you need to, the ability to bring our food directly to the people, and the ability to change our menu more often and have that be part of the appeal of coming to us.”
Don’t expect to see the typical staples one normally finds at a Chinese restaurant. Mei Mei takes things to a whole new level: bone marrow fried rice, sesame noodle salad topped with a fried egg, sweet and sour pork with rhubarb sauce, “Porky Mac and Cheese” and the “Double Awesome” (two eggs poached and then fried),Vermont cheddar and pesto on a scallion pancake).
“We like to play around and we’re willing to step outside of the traditions of what one would think of traditional Chinese dishes. And our customers go with it with us. We do have some customers who come up to us and ask if we have egg rolls or fried rice and we have to tell them, “Well, no, but we might have it some days,” Mei explains. “This menu is based on what’s local and in season, and sometimes it means that we have to be loose in our interpretation of Chinese food. But we always try to incorporate ingredients, like pork belly or baby bok choy or flavors that are used in this type of cuisine.”
The majority of the inspiration for their recipes comes from the produce they receive from The Food Project in Jamaica Plain and Atlas Farms in Deerfield.
“Because we are working with small farms and not with big companies like Sysco, where we’d have a standing order each week and we’d know what’s being delivered, it means that our menu is dictated by what’s coming in. We always get things like eggs and beef and pork, but other than that, it’s just looking to see what’s available. And we take those items that come in and we’re like, ‘Ok, we have snap peas. Well, let’s put it in a noodle dish’. Or we’ll have beets and then we’ll see that we also have ricotta. ‘Ok, let’s make a beet and ricotta dumpling’. It’s a lot of fun operating that way. It’s also a little crazy.”
When it comes to the meats they are using, Mei Mei brings their same fervor for local sourcing. The team sought farms that treat animals humanely, and are currently purchasing beef from Adams Farms in Athol, and pork from other local farms.
“We don’t serve local meat to be the ‘only’ or the ‘best’ but because we know it’s the right thing to do and because we believe that the only way to make good meat more widely available and affordable is to support the farmers who produce it. It’s not all about us,” Irene said.
The Mei Mei team has hopes and dreams for the future, but for now they seem quite content with the direction things are going. Some possible plans are the development of a second truck, the opening of their own prep kitchen (they currently rent space at Gourmet Caterers in Roslindale), and hosting cooking demonstrations.
Andy is especially excited about the progress they’ve made.
“I personally just try to take things one day at a time at the stage that we are at right now, but we are super excited about all the possibilities, the connections we are making and just continuing to deliver delicious, ethically sourced food that makes people happy. If we can focus on that as a basic core value, I feel that other things will fall into place eventually as time goes on.”
Mei Mei’s schedule varies monthly, determined by the City ofBoston. The best way to keep up with them is through their website meimeiboston.com or their Twitter feed.
Brian Samuels is a Boston-based event and food photographer and writer. He is the creator of the food blog A Thought For Food (www.athoughtforfood.net), a collection of recipes, personal anecdotes and historical information pertaining to cooking. His work has been featured in Saveur, Improper Bostonian, Edible Boston and TheKitchn. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.