When we were kids, my parents would regularly drive hours from our home in western Pennsylvania for decent Cantonese food. Although our tiny town boasted its very own Chinese restaurant — New Mandarin Inn, to be exact — it was not up to the standards of my exacting mother, who preferred a particular type of Cantonese food. Pittsburgh did not hold any of those types of restaurants, either. According to my parents, if you wanted real Cantonese food, you had only a few options: New York’s Chinatown, about 6 hours away; Toronto’s Chinatown, about 4 hours away; or Cleveland, a mere 2 hours by comparison.
The restaurant that my parents deemed good enough for them was a place on the outskirts of Cleveland called Bo Loong. My siblings and I would grow to loathe the very words; to us, the words “Bo Loong” essentially = a long drive, rewarded by crappy food. In protest, I would often just eat white rice, thinking my parents would care that I was not getting a decent meal; I would be wrong. In time, “Bo Loong” would become shorthand for anything that we would hate, all that awaited us in the world that was basically a black hole of suckitude. Even today, my brother and sister and I never choose a Cantonese restaurant for a family night out in Bangkok if we can help it. The scars are that deep. Bo Loong, Bo Loong, Bo Loong.
So imagine my surprise upon leaving the boat in Papeete, Tahiti, determined to find the same Chinese restaurant that my mother deemed good enough a few years ago on our last visit here. It was called Restaurant Meméné, and, unlike its more “famous” (for Tahiti) competitors like Le Mandarin, it was basically a hole-in-the-wall a short walk away from the municipal market (but then again so is everything else in Papeete). You see, I was desperate. The boat that I call home for the next 5 months has great service and surprisingly good Indian food, but their Asian food still has a way to go. I missed good rice.
Although some things have changed in town — a new, ugly structure is being built on the port, replacing the parking lot that once hosted all the charming (if expensive) food trucks at night — COVID has left Restaurant Meméné completely unchanged. The same flimsy red paper lanterns hang from the ceiling; the same woman takes our order with a grandmotherly solicitousness. Meméné herself is also completely unchanged, taciturn, maybe even a little grumpy, but still a great cook.
Unfortunately, her canard lacque (roast duck) was all out, as was her steamed chicken with ginger sauce. No worries, as we didn’t need them. We ordered the riz cantonais that seemed to be on every table, and steamed mussels positively coated in garlic and garlanded with a thick, if somewhat unnecessary, mantle of glass noodles. A surprisingly large offering of thick, smashed cucumbers in garlic and chilies was a blast to the palate after the anodyne stuff on offer during the ship’s “Far East” buffet nights. A steamed pomfret in soy sauce served under a mountain of shaved green onion was so good that we ended up ordering two, much to the delight of Meméné herself.
But Meméné’s real talent is in her “au sel” dishes, in which the protein of your choice is stir-fried dry with salt, garlic and chilies. We tried three: chicken, squid and sweet small shrimp, fried crisp and eaten with the shells on.
Some of her dishes also have Polynesian touches: dumplings stuffed with taro, pork stir-fried with taro, and a great crispy-skinned pork served with coconut milk on the side.
All the time we were stuffing our faces, of course, my son sat alongside wearing his sad face, picking at his fried rice and chicken with a fork. He did not try to punish us by eating only white rice, but he wasn’t exactly jumping up and down with happiness either. He was the picture of me, 40 years ago, at a restaurant table in downtown Cleveland. We were back at Bo Loong! It was the circle of life! (Imagine the appropriate gif here because I can’t insert it since Disney will sue me).
To prove I’m not my parents (and because it was his birthday), we took him to an ice cream parlor where he consoled himself with a scoop of New Zealand’s best hokey pokey flavor. Chinese food might have been a dirty trick to play on him, as it was his birthday and all, but there was also a bright side. After all, Tahiti is a much longer drive from Bangkok than Cleveland was from New Castle.