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Apr 22, 2007 06:54 AM

Zen Mei Bistro on Alpine/Yale: good value

I've been going here for years. It's sort of like the Chinese version of Sapp Coffee House: unpretentious service, large portions, generally good versions of various cantonese and other offerings served quickly if sometimes chaotically. Plus a free plate of unpeeled shrimp with orders over $20. It's a popular place among local families, Chinese and non-Chinese.

Went today with 5 people and fed them for $41 sans tip but including a few sodas. The clams in black bean, sweet and sour pork, pan fried whole flounder, fried shrimp, pork-fried rice, and chicken chow mein plus the salty head-on shrimp, big bowl of chicken bone/broth soup and orange slices (in lieu of tapioca)...these last all gratis btw...filled us nicely.

Don't go if you expect dancing girls, the Mona Lisa on the wall, or waitstaff patting you on the head in bowing supplication. Expect friendly smiles and good value for your hard-earned green paper.

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  1. Hey Bronc - You amaze me with your list of suggestions, comments, and recs. I picture a man who was born with a fork, knife, chopsticks and pocket-sized notepad in his hands and has been on a neverending journey of driving, walking and tasting LA since the first Ship's opened its doors.

    This place sounds like the classic one-of-a-kind Chowhound find, with their shrimp kicker for "bigger spenders," great value, and good quality. The clams in black bean sounds like something I'd slurp up - how would you rate this dish?

    4 Replies
    1. re: bulavinaka

      Heh, well bulav I will defer to your own expansive and well-considered takes on the LA county scene in terms of breadth, but I do get around a bit. Rounder and rounder by the day in fact since the only thing about me lately that is neverending seems to be my waistline. ;)

      I'd say the clams/w bb were pretty much just okay. Somehow I envisioned clams that had been "liberated" from their shells but they came shell on, and typically I don't like performing surgery on exoskeletons when I'm eating (I'm a first generation LA guy with New Orleans creole roots who has gotten bored with eating crawdads on account of all the manhandling, for example). The black bean sauce and usual onions and green peper were fine, but them tiny clams didn't amount to much meat. I've sampled various things on their menu and would probably pass on this in the future; might order again if I cared much about clams, mebbe 20% chance.

      If you like fried fish the whole flounder for $4.50 or something seems to be always popular.

      Now nothing here is the "best" offering I've sweet and sour was at one of the MVPs in the Valley, best fried rice in a Vietnamese/Chinese place downtown, etc...but I've seldom had a dish that I didn't enjoy on a quality basis, and the portions tend to be substantial.

      One other thing, no beer; I don't think they'd care if you brought your own. Also cash only.
      As I recall (thoughit has been a while; ymmv) the bathroom was reasonably clean yet tiny and retaining a certain "grungesqueness" common among this breed of small Chinese joints.

      1. re: broncosaurus

        Thanks for your great perspectives as usual... I savor any fish or seafood that is prepared well - the flounder sounds like a go...

        Maybe you and Randy Newman were Big Easy babies born with LA hearts... Having a particular aversion to peeling and sucking crawdaddies is definitely so LA!

        1. re: bulavinaka

          It's really a time thing...I'd rather be eatin' than crackin'. One reason (aside from the great taste) I like King Crab legs over all others, for example.

          1. re: broncosaurus

            I got it - they're like crab sausage encased in really tough skins...

    2. That used to be the first May Flower location, is the food similar? They sold it to one of the cooks there when the son didn't want to run that location anymore.

      3 Replies
      1. re: monku

        I guess it's fair to say they are sort of similar. Mayflower is pretty reasonable too. Only difference I've noticed is that it seems to be inordinately favored by filipinos for some reason. Also service at Mayflower isn't as friendly. Lots more room there however.

        1. re: broncosaurus

          Doesn't surprise me now that the menu's are similar, since their cook became the owner.
          I always thought it was a strange name.

          Filipinos like the place for a couple reasons. On that note you'll notice that all the tables are pre-set with fork & spoon(you won't see that anywhere else in Chinatown) chopsticks.

          #1 They like a bargain.
          #2 The owners (Vietnamese) are members of a Filipino Lions Club that frequently eats there.

          1. re: monku

            Ah, thanks for the enlightenment. Never noticed the fork/spoon deployment as I always use the choppers. While I prefer Zen Mei, Mayflower also scores well on the good value scale.

      2. What's the address? What's sapp coffee house? What do you mean by that? Enlighten...

        2 Replies
        1. re: hazelnutty

          The address is 800 Yale St., directly on the corner of Alpine and Yale in Chinatown.

          If you go, strive to order at least $20 since this will trigger the murder via frying of a whole plate of shell-on salty shrimp for free. (I wonder if the fact that those shrimp made the ultimate sacrifice for no charge would somehow bother them.) This promotion began as a celebration of their 1st anniversary, but since they have been there for several years now they evidently either forgot or use the orbit of some obscure object in the asteroid belt for their calendar year.

          Sapp Coffee House (5183 Hollywood Blvd) is one of the better Thai places in the heart of Thai Town and is known for their great version of Boat Noodles (search the board for more info) and other good deals (like the half bbq chicken and fried rice for $7 and change). Once again, a cash only, "good value" place. Don't go if atmosphere is what you're after as there is none aside from that which you breath.

          What's this mysterious "good value" business? Well, it's best shown by example. Dino's Chicken on Pico a bit west of Vermont offers a half-chicken, marinated in a murky-yellow sauce that ends up smothering the hunk of french fries it is nestled in. Comes with a side of coleslaw and a couple of barely serviceable corn tortillas. A "good value" at $4.50 (approx).

          Good value can pop up anywhere and of course can be pretty subjective, but often value is diluted by the fact that an owner has to pay more for pricey real estate, or has an inflated opinion of the value of his offerings in the marketplace, or last if the place has been invaded by trendoids.

          Hope this informs; for enlightenment, try Zen...

          1. re: broncosaurus

            Thanks. Well said regarding last paragraph.