On a busy night at EMei, so many whole fish roll through this contemporary dining hall, where robotic carts weave their way around its porthole-pierced walls to large tables filled with international students, that you would never know that Chinatown was in turmoil.
The plump sea bass here cooked by chef Yong Zhao, crisping in the popular “squirrel fish” whose fried fillets are hatched like pine cones under a sweet and sour sauce, or steaming in pots of purple “spicy sauce” under handfuls of chili peppers and cilantro, focus diners entirely on a Sichuan feast with few peers in Philadelphia.
With a dozen other dishes on the table, from shredded beef with wok green bean peppers, ear mushrooms, crispy fried calamari rolls and a bowl of mapo tofu cubes sprinkled with so many peppercorns of freshly ground Sichuan, it tickles my nose as I approach, this meal is an immersive delight that easily distracts from the challenges that linger just outside EMei’s Arch Street door.
Chinatown has been under exceptional strain over the past two years, from the hateful wave of anti-Asian sentiment that has clouded this neighborhood since the pandemic began, to the first citywide dining hall closures that have impacted its 75 restaurants largely destination, to the exodus of many skilled Chinese employees who left the city in the face of uncertainty. The lack of daytime foot traffic from nearby half-empty offices also reduced business.
Now comes another major threat: a new 76ers stadium proposal to replace the nearby Fashion District mall. Depending on who you ask, a stadium could be a revival engine for Market East or an “existential threat” to Chinatown, a neighborhood that has faced so many challenges in its 150 years.
“There may be a crisis for Chinatown, but there may also be an opportunity – we really don’t know that yet,” says Dan Tsao, co-owner of EMei with his wife Tingting Wan, who founded the restaurant with her mother. , Jinwen Yu. , 11 years ago.
Tsao, also publisher of the Chinese-language Metro Chinese Weekly and its WeChat PhillyGuide account, became a central figure in coordinating some 40 Chinatown associations into a committee to negotiate with the Sixers. Tsao chose to remain neutral and let its media platforms be a forum for dialogue.
But as we ponder the possible ripple effects of a new stadium, including skyrocketing real estate costs that will ultimately favor chains over independents, it becomes easy to imagine losing Dim Sum Garden to a Chipotle. .
I happen to be a dedicated Sixers fan who also wants to see Market East thrive. The Sixers say they promise to build “ethically and fairly.” But will it be sustainable? I’m skeptical. Stadiums come and go every 30 years. But Chinatown is irreplaceable, a still vital legacy of 19th century Philadelphia that thrives in the geographic heart of the city that is one of the last such enclaves in America. His disappearance would be a tragedy for everyone.
And EMei’s continued success as one of Chinatown’s top restaurants shows just how relevant this neighborhood remains. Tsao and Wan were right to radically transform their late 2019-dated dining room into a sleek, modern space that can attract the affluent international students who now make up 30-50% of its business. The same population has pushed the entire district over the past decade to evolve from its Cantonese roots to include other regions like Szechuan, Shanghai, Taiwan, and Xi’an, as well as other cuisines.
When the pandemic stalled, the ever-enterprising Tsao created RiceVan to reassign sidelined employees from his media company to regularly transport food from EMei and 30 other Chinatown restaurants to 4,500 customers in Asian predominance in the suburbs.
Delivery declined as suburban customers returned to Chinatown, and this month Tsao put RiceVan on hiatus. But the takeout operation remains so robust that EMEi has two employees dedicated to packing orders, and revenue has rebounded beyond pre-pandemic levels. A continued shortage of staff explains the recent appearance of foodservice robots (“Little White” and “Little Yellow”) that allow servers to spend more time on the dining room floor. (Tsao is now the exclusive distributor of these machines in Pennsylvania.)
Kitchen staff resisted their own attrition by promoting from within, including Honduran-born Andres Aleman, a longtime former dishwasher trained by Zhao to become a chao guo (wok chef). They produce dozens of intricate dishes, balancing not only Szechuan’s famously numbing spice, but also the myriad of textures, temperatures and precision knives that are hallmarks of a well-regulated kitchen.
Just look at the perfectly even tenderloins of pulled beef whose sweet, oyster-sauced meat yields tenderly against bright green ribbons of long, spicy hot peppers. Or the intricate diamond cuts that help keep meaty tubes of salt and pepper fried calamari so tender.
Zhao’s constant presence in EMEi’s kitchen since its founding in 2011 represents rare longevity for a non-Chinatown owner and speaks to remarkable consistency. Zhao is one of Philadelphia’s unsung great chefs, with more than half a century of experience in 69 years. The unwavering excellence of a feast prepared by his crew in his absence during my recent visit is testament to his leadership.
The silkiness of the diced soft tofu and ground beef in the West Lake Beef Soup (sourced from the coastal province of Zhejiang, at Tsao) sparkled with white pepper, fragrant sesame oil and a explosion of fresh coriander herbs. The aniseed flame of chilli oil and peppercorns lit up the bright orange crusts of perfectly fried prawns, the shellfish equivalent of Chongqing diced chicken mixed with dried chillies which is a nod to the region of Wan origin. The delicate blend of cold tripe and beef salad, fu qi fei pian, was as much about contrasting textures as it was about the punchy marinade, while the flavor of the sesame noodles offered a refreshing balm with just enough sesame for its sauce. coats the lips. .
There’s a reason EMei’s cucumber salad delivers a resonant crunch – each cuke is cut to order before being tossed with the layered flavor of lightly fried scallions and crushed raw garlic, a no shortcuts philosophy that extends to pancakes and fresh green onion dumplings, items often outsourced to save time at other restaurants. Vinegar-tinted wooden ear mushrooms are also all about crunch, as are “fish loops,” a round cup-shaped cartilage salvaged from the gullets of larger fish whose snapping amplifies the sautéed heat of tiny peppers. .
Spicy dishes are particularly popular with young people, but Wan notes that Sichuan cuisine is more dynamic than unbridled fire and numbing peppercorns. You taste this subtlety in the popular squirrelfish, whose sweet and sour sauce carries a sweet spice note in the background. I taste it in the measured warmth of kung pao and its milder cashew variation. It’s evident in the sour ping of mustard greens running through the savory pork crumbs and sesame paste of dan dan noodles. .
No EMei dish, however, exemplifies the spirit of this cuisine quite like Zhao’s mapo tofu. Philly’s finest take on the classic dish deftly fuses the boldest and most nuanced traits of Szechuan cuisine into a magnetic tureen. The fiery red pool of hot, numbing “mala” broth with silky cubes of sweetness punctuated with crispy fried pork crumbs, a radiant dusting of fresh ground peppercorns and an unexpected undertow of sweetness from bean paste, ginger fresh and just enough cornstarch to make it cling.
It’s so good that I ate it as leftovers for days. But I wonder if it could be a hit with future Sixers fans en route to a game, along with the other wonders of Chinatown? I hope we will never know.
915 Arch Street, (215) 627-2500; emeiphilly.com
Full menu served Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m.
Appetizers, $13.95 to $35.95 (whole bar)