Granite State of Mind, #73: Mei Wei Restaurant, Durham
I've been pretty clear for a long time that the Szechuan Taste in Exeter is my true love when it comes to Chinese restaurants, a love that has endured faithfully for more than two decades. I've never found a place in Maryland or Washington to rival that affection. The closest has been the Super Buffet out here in DuPont, but I don't think that counts - the gut-busting Chinese buffet joints are an entirely different animal. And to be completely honest, they are among my guiltiest of gustatory pleasures, a stomach-punishing yet irresistable tribute to excess. I knew them all back home in NH, but my most frequent haunt was the Mei Wei in the Mill Plaza next to UNH.
It wasn't called that during my undergrad days - it was the Dragon Something, or the Something Dragon, and wasn't really on my radar screen. Sometime during my first stint as staff on campus, in my Justiceworks days, it was reinvented as the Mei Wei, with a sushi bar (about which I could not care less) and a funky, almost cosmopolitan interior. Most importantly, it had a nine-dollar lunch buffet, and probably once a week I would head over with a book and stress-test my digestive system. Yeah, yeah, I was bigger then, but even after I started to shave off the pounds I would still drop in and enjoy the slow, relaxed exercise of eating as much as I damn well pleased. It was a solitary, shame-free experience. I frankly don't like going to these places with other people - I don't need someone watching just how much beef teriyaki and sesame chicken I'm shoveling down my gullet. After a while, Jesse and his staff knew me enough that they would bring a carafe of Diet Coke and leave me to my assault on the chafing dishes.
Word is the actual menu isn't that bad, and it's a popular place for the college kids to get scorpion bowls to start their weekend evenings. I've also heard that the place has a secret authentic Chinese menu for fluent customers, catering to the growing population of Chinese nationals among the student body at UNH. That's kind of cool. But I don't need squid or rooster feet or cultural validation. Just a quiet table, a carafe of DC, and a mountain of middle-of-the-road Americanized Chinese food I'll feel bad about later. They say the heart wants what it wants. Every once in a while, I like to extend the same courtesy to my stomach.