Chunks of canary-yellow mango jostle jade-green pea pods and thick smoky strips of the most realistic faux chicken in a faux-meat town, hands down. Meanwhile, in another dish, actual chicken and succulent, Oreo-sized shrimp jut from Singapore vermicelli, each strand elegantly separate, stretchy-firm: If there’s a Chinese phrase meaning al dente, it applies here. Almost every dish is packed with so much protein that you’re primed to pop up from your chair and hike from here to San Leandro. It’s that good, and yes: It’s a hole-in-the-wall.
Small and humble and virtually invisible, holes-in-the-wall tend to be one way or the other: They are seedy dives with shocking fare or else they’re somewhere’s best-kept secrets, wielding world-class hot-and-sour soup under the radar. You know those. In memory, they glow, so that a certain summer or a certain someone smells forever in your mind like shrimp the way they fried it there. Those crimson tassels on the lampshades shimmied when the door opened and shut. The chairs squeaked. That was where your mom and dad, pulling pork from the bone, forgot to fight.
Holes-in-the-wall are yours until you lose them. Then you think you’ll never know another. Out there in the universe they wink. To find one is a measure of belonging.
It’s easy to miss the Mayflower, one slim slot on a downtown Berkeley block studded with seven other restaurants. Having walked past it twice a day nearly every day since it opened five years ago, I’ve barely noticed it except to think sometimes: There’s that sad place where no one ever goes. Five years: dozens of meals out, takeaways, and guests asking to try the local best: We never brought them to the Mayflower. It never crossed our minds. We guided them past its ignore-me entryway without a glance and, oh, the irony. The glaring shame.
Because the Mayflower’s double-mushroom veggie chicken is a mountain range of fat black juicy caps. And on one wall hangs a huge and surreal Photoshopped photograph of elephants on a white beach under a blindingly blue sky. And dim sum is served here all day, every day. Thirty-one kinds: Chive dumplings. Shark-fin dumplings. Turnip cakes. Sweet rice in lotus leaves. Shu mai, sesame balls, steamed bao stuffed with chicken or pork or creamy, coconutty egg custard. Fried bread. Deep-fried custard buns. At night.
A marvel by definition is a menu sporting 199 separate items denoting a whirlwind tour of regional and culinary styles, from rock-cod clay pot to spinach with duck eggs to shrimp in lobster sauce to dried-fish-and-peanut porridge, also known as jook. And that’s not counting the 42 lunch specials, which include such rarities as ginger lamb, seaweed salad (as an entrée!), and lemon-grass pork chop. And that’s not counting a separate 57-item vegetarian menu, of which we the meatless need read only as far as faux-chicken drumsticks and faux-chicken wintermelon soup before swooning dead away. And that’s not counting daily specials.
In romantic low light, flanked by fake flowers, carved rosewood, corkscrewy bamboo, and glittery Chinese poems on cardboard adorned with pop-up Disney characters, you are startled to recognize that each dish seems composed with care, as if someone wanted you to notice — and come back. Servings are huge, cooked just so. Components hulk heavy in chopsticks and spoons. They are not hacked into haphazard bits as often happens elsewhere: The Mayflower shuns that cost-cutting legerdemain that makes a little look like more. The Mayflower actually gives you more. Standards — fried rice, spare ribs — are fashioned with the same respect as out-there ventures such as vegetarian fried shrimp and orange beef.
Someone cared to concoct the primal brightness of black-pepper veggie beef lo mein, whose thick soft noodles offset a sophisticated sauce in which showers of pepper granules sear the tongue: a hot salty assault. This is the way Chinese food was made spicy before chili peppers crossed the sea. Someone cared to crimp the snowy-white wraps around the Chiu Chow dumplings whose chopped meat and mushrooms make them little pocket meals, chewy like mochi. Someone cared to craft a subtle curry dusting for the Malaysian-style beef chow fun. And someone cared to fry for not one femtosecond too long the crispy sesame veggie chicken, whose batter-cloaked finger-sized hanks evoke Hawaiian malasadas and fluffy golden corn dogs, in a good way.
Other Chinese restaurants in town: Everyone knows their names. And meatless restaurants: Instant recognition. This place, though, whose meatless dishes are only a sideline, manages nonetheless to out-yum them, like that silent shy guy on the bus who can secretly transform washcloths into gold.
Granted, a lot here is deep-fried, even things you wouldn’t expect to be: for instance, orange veggie beef, whose battered chunks bask in garlicky brown sauce, clotted with shredded lettuce and bitter, preserved orange zest. And granted, protein is all well and good, but many dishes include no (or almost no) vegetables. If these things matter to you, ask. That’s easy, as Guangdong-bred owner Mei Wang is also the server. Ask her, too, how long your selections will take to make; some — such as pan-fried veggie fish (faux meats here are called “veggie” meats) — aren’t quick.
But oh. That veggie fish. Slabs shaped like salmon steaks taste liltingly, soaringly of the sea, melting between the teeth: tender, while the faux chicken here is firm and authentically fibrous, the faux beef hearty but soft. Wang orders her faux meats from a Los Angeles producer, having taste-tested others seeking what she calls “the freshest and best.”
Popping a smoky golden puff of sweet-and-sour veggie ham into his mouth, Tuffy moans. At other tables, other diners murmur like initiates. The Mayflower’s walls are painted in wide bands: the exact red of the ketchup served with fried shrimp in that hole-in-the-wall I loved long ago and lost; the exact yellow of the Chinese mustard there; and lavender for laughs. Because this place was waiting for us all along, and we thought we were so smart. Now we know.