The menu at Mee & Greet is a delicious mashup of Southeast Asia’s greatest hits, jumping from Vietnamese bo luc lac to Singaporean chicken rice, and garlic wings to Japanese-tinged burgers. For diners who like everything in a neat box, this “hybrid pan-Asian” offering may seem confusing.
Once Eric Ong, founder of Humble Potato, Mee & Greet, and Most Valuable Playa steps out from the kitchen, it all swiftly makes sense. His father is Indo Chinese, his mother, Taiwanese, and his coming-of-age spans from Indonesia and Japan to LA’s own Palms neighborhood. The diversity in his restaurant’s food is as authentic as his own DNA.
When I read this menu, I see a lot of culture. Did you have to explain any elements of this to people at the start?
Yes. We used to get a lot of cultural appropriation complaints or say that we weren’t legit. People might come in, look at the menu, and if I’m not there that day, they probably won’t see an Asian behind the counter. Then they’ll assume “Oh, it’s not authentic.”
And that’s unfortunate because the guys behind the menu, me and Chef Minh Phan, are the real thing! Minh is the OG. He’s from Da Lat, Vietnam – was there 50 years and just immigrated to the US.
How do you decide what goes on your menus? I’m obsessed with the garlic noodles and am grateful that they also show up at Most Valuable Playa.
We want to put something for everyone on here – we’re conscious that there will be people who don’t know what the heck turmeric is. We’re known for our burgers, so I’ll always make sure to bring my burgers everywhere.
You’ll see other things like chicken rice pop up again and again. I knew that the Hainan chicken was always going to be on the menu because I loved being a Southeast kid, eating proper chicken rice in Singapore.
I know people go crazy for the chicken rice! Where’s the recipe from? Did someone teach you how to make it?
A lot of it comes from just watching how they make this at roadside stalls in Singapore–it’s all out in the open so you can observe the whole thing and take notes. Poaching is the most important technique, with timing the icebath correctly. At home in Singapore, you would hang it afterward so it preserves the juices and you don’t have to refrigerate it, but here, the health inspectors would shut you down, so we adapt.
When sourcing our chicken, we bought so many, from a billion different farms. None of them produced that authentic kind of silky, juicy texture, so we decided to go premium and just use Mary’s Organic chicken—it’s smaller but it’s easier to cook and manage the temperature.
Is the menu constantly evolving?
Absolutely. The tough part – a lot of these flavors aren’t a given for people’s palates. Introducing even a couple new items is a lot of work, because you have to educate the diner about the new flavor and the context it comes from.
My chef can make authentic anything, but my role will be to say whether something will work for an American audience or if we should tweak it. Every time we launch a new item, it’s a collaboration between me and my chef – we want to make sure it’s done right with respect to its roots, and that it will be received well by our customers.
Tell me more about Chef Minh.
He’s the super old school, minimalist, doesn’t-say-a-word type, but such a gentle soul who knows so much. He went through a lot of hardship with past employers who exploited him and didn’t take full advantage of his talents. It was a bit of a shock for him when he came to work for me, since my style is the complete opposite.
Every single day, I drive to all three of my restaurants. That’s why they’re so close together; because it’s important for me to see my whole team and put in that face time.
The first years Chef Mihn was with me were insane. Here I had this amazing Vietnamese chef with a culinary degree, and I have him flipping burgers at Humble Potato. I always told him, “Minh, I appreciate you being here for me—in a couple years lets do something that you and I can enjoy, something that we can both be a part of.” Four years out, we were able to open Mee and Greet together.
Tell me about Peranakan culture.
The original concept was supposed to be Peranakan! It’s so unknown in these parts. If I had to explain the word “Peranakan,” it simply means Chinese who migrate to somewhere else in the Southeast and bring their culture with them. You have Filipino Chinese, Singaporean Chinese, Indo Chinese… Everywhere they go in the Southeast, the cooking tends to have the basis of turmeric, garlic, chili, red onion.
When you’re Chinese living somewhere else and trying to make food from back home, you incorporate these local ingredients and it becomes something else: Peranakan.
Peranakan cuisine is hard to do though. Take sambal for instance. We spent so much time trying to make it in-house with the mortar and pestles. Our eyes were burning from the red onions and we’re like, “You know what – we’ll just use a food processor.” We want to stay authentic to this Peranakan food but at the end of the day, we also have to run a business.
What’s the future of this kind of cooking?
What’s good right now is that, for instance, Szechuan cooking is getting noticed as people start to realize that there are many different kinds of Chinese cooking, and that’s just one province out of, I mean, how many are there to discover still? Peranakan will take longer because it’s not really on people’s radars yet.
The food business is changing so fast. The opportunity there is tremendous, but you have to be smart about knowing the community, knowing where there’s a need for your food, and figuring out how to price it right.
The cost of doing business is getting tougher, so we have to be smarter and not overspend on things like image and facades. Stay true to your local customers and take care of them sincerely, and run a lean operation, and your restaurant will stay open.
3500 Overland Ave #150, Los Angeles, CA 90034
12608 Washington Blvd B, Los Angeles, CA 90066
12608 Washington Blvd B, Los Angeles, CA 90066
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Images by Patrick Manolo | Editing by Tableside Staff