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I did not expect sorcery from a preserved turnip.
It was the only ingredient in the omelet on my plate at Mama Lee, a small, plain-spoken Taiwanese restaurant in Bayside, Queens. The eggs had been beaten loosely, so flecks of white still showed, and hustled from the pan when patchy bronze. Inside, they were studded with tender nubs of turnip, yielding with a quiet crunch.
Nothing else had been added, not even salt. “Everything is in the turnip,” said Mei Lee, the restaurant’s eponymous owner. The root’s briny flavor was diffuse, like a tint of rose in sunglasses. It made me think of surfacing after a plunge in the sea, that half-taste, half-scent of salt.
In Taiwan, you would categorize this dish as xiao chi: small eats. It’s not fancy and not meant to be. And still I wanted to write ode upon ode to it.
“This is simple, home-style food,” Ms. Lee insisted. She is a no-nonsense figure in apron and bandanna, comfortingly bossy. Twice, she scolded me gently for ordering too much, concerned for my health.
Every meal begins with a generous, free bowl of soup, which, on my visits, was a clear broth made from pork bones that at first tasted of hardly anything and grew deeper with each spoonful.
Eventually nearly every table holds a plate of the enormous meatballs known as lion’s heads, rough spheres of ground pork bound by egg and mottled with ginger and garlic. They are seared briefly, then braised for two hours until they emerge as soft as physically possible without falling apart. At the touch of chopsticks, they calve like glaciers.
According to legend, three-cup chicken earned its name from a 13th-century recipe improvised for a hero’s last meal, with one cup each of sesame oil, soy sauce and Shaoxing wine. Here, a more complex calibration anoints boneless hunks of dark thigh meat, which acquire a seal the color of caramel in the wok and arrive shining, adorned with garlic and swooning leaves of Thai basil.
Salt-and-pepper chicken is sweeter, the skin more fluffy than crackly. As for the chicken roll, listed under Special Dishes, it has no chicken: The filling is fish paste, ground pork and carrots, infiltrated by five-spice, folded inside bean-curd skin, and fried. This also skews sweet, and comes with ketchup. Its appeal remains a mystery to me, but people at other tables seemed to like it just fine.
Children bow heads over bowls of lu rou fan: ground pork, tofu and a hard-boiled egg inky from a long braise in soy and Shaoxing wine. Grown-ups want it, too, alongside hotter dishes like strips of flank steak in a swarm of longhorn green peppers, some innocent and bright, others hellbent.
Ms. Lee, whose family has roots in northern China, grew up in South Korea; her husband is a native of Taiwan, where she went to college. For years, she said, “I was a housewife.” Then, in 2013, with her son halfway through high school, she spotted this tiny storefront next to a Taiwanese-American church.
She runs the kitchen with her uncle Jin Tsai Liu, who was a chef at a Shanghainese restaurant in Rego Park. And every night, her husband, who works for a Chinese-language newspaper, stops by to help her clean up. “We close the door and walk home together,” she said.
The dining room is spare but cheerful, with an orange back wall, taped-up Christmas cards and children’s drawings, and photographs of the Alpine village in Austria where the Lees stayed on a farm and milked cows last summer. “We enjoy natural things, not big buildings,” she said.
Restaurant hours are erratic, so call ahead. The staff members take a “rest,” as the sign in the window puts it, from 4 to 5 p.m. On weekends, the food often sells out by 7:30 p.m. If Ms. Lee is not feeling well — “I used to have good health, but this restaurant gives me lots of pressure” — she will take the day off. Last year, she closed the restaurant for four months so she could spend time with her parents in South Korea.
Ms. Lee is not sure if she wants more people to know that her restaurant exists. “I always tell my customers, ‘Eat for yourself,’” she said. “‘Don’t tell anyone.’”
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