Outside of Chinatowns and Asian communities, there’s a reassuring predictability to what’s on the menu at what one can categorize as Chinese-American restaurants. These aren’t places to get jellyfish appetizers, preserved duck egg congee or black bean oysters. Instead, this is where you don’t even have to look at the menu to accurately guess that you’ll be able to get a reasonably priced and filling lunch.
Typical main course selections include such old chestnuts as kung paos of various stripes or some variant of fried chicken. Tofu and steamed vegetables are usually on tap for those desiring something other than meat. Of course, each of these comes with soup, an egg roll and rice. These are the staple offerings of Basemar Center’s May Wah, which has been around for at least as long my mid-’90s grad school career.
While the menu and interior are remarkably unchanged (although Thai and Vietnamese dishes, including pho, are now available), dining companion Eric noted that the owners keep the place in tip-top shape, and its appearance doesn’t belie its age. The menu holds few surprises, with the most expensive a la carte options consisting of $13.95 seafood offerings. The lunch special choices start at $6.95 and work their way up to $8.50 for scallop or Happy Family options.
Eric and I both went for lunch specials, with a starter of hot and sour soup. May Wah’s preparation was remarkably balanced, contrasting with the many versions of this starter that tend towards, well, either being too hot or too sour. White pepper certainly perked things up on a wintry day, but it certainly wasn’t overbearing, and the vinegar contributed ample tang to the broth without being obtrusive. The accompanying egg roll was crisp with a tooth some vegetable filling.
Eric’s $6.95 Mongolian beef consisted of tender and flavorful strips of meat alongside small but pungent slivers of dried red pepper and sautéed onion. This entrée was attractively plated, with the charming touch of having the fried rice presented in the shape of a cloud, as if it had been formed by a cookie cutter.
It may be easier to make a bad sesame chicken than a good one. Fortunately, May Wah’s $6.95 lunch preparation generally falls on the side of the angels. If my family, which is dedicated to traditional culinary notions, saw me order this dish, they would disown me. Ordering this sort of dish is tantamount to proclaiming Jackie Chan superior to Bruce Lee, but it’s my shameful guilty pleasure. Sure, the sesame sauce’s syrupy sweetness could have been a little less, but that’s par for the course for this dish wherever you go. What was good was the crisp but not overly bready texture of the batter (a reminder that the best fried chicken from Asian restaurants is as good as you’ll find anywhere) surrounding moist and tender poultry.
You don’t go to a place like May Wah for culinary originality. But while we’ve seen these dishes countless times before, it’s clear that this eatery doesn’t take its customers for granted. For the money, the preparations are as expert as you’ll find anywhere, and the attractive presentation was a pleasant surprise. So if one needs to indulge the guilty pleasures of Chinese-American cuisine, you’ll find exactly what you need at this Boulder institution.
Clay’s Obscurity Corner Sunday soup
Speaking of Asian fare, Saichi Sushi, located in the Niwot Market at 7980 Niwot Rd., serves up authentic ramen noodle soup bowls on Sundays. Available with salt, soy and miso broths, these offerings range from $9 to $10 a serving. I recently tried the spicy miso version. While I wished the broth were more rounded in flavor, I appreciated the texture of the noodles, which were much more substantial than the instant variety. Tender bits of pork and pickled vegetable also added flavor and heft. During my visit, it was clear that the soup here draws a dedicated crowd.
May Wah 2500 Baseline Rd. Boulder 303-499-6477