Jazz, Sushi, and Mongolian Warrior Steak at Mei’s Bistro
By Jackie Bong-Wright
Jazz and Blues at Happy Hours
Music legend Cab Calloway once described tall baritone saxophonist Bobby Eldridge as “a superior talent.” When they engaged Elridge, Su Ly and his wife, Sarinda, owners of Mei’s Bistro, wanted nothing but the best at their restaurant in Arlington. Opened in May 2007, their new eatery is located in the Virginia Square Metro area in back of George Mason University Law School.
Once a month, guests got a free Sake tasting with a Japanese master connoisseur. Every Friday and Saturday, after the happy hour, music lovers enjoy live jazz with Eldridge and guitarist Scott Giambusso. Eldridge, who graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1971, teaches music at colleges in Virginia; and Giambusso, base and guitar at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland.
Their repertoire ranges from Duke Ellington to Stevie Wonder and beyond. Jeff Lee, a long-time Arlington resident who traveled the world in his youth with his father, a diplomat, is an avid jazz fan who comes religiously to Mei’s. “The owners and staff are friendly and I feel welcome. I love everything they play, from “Prelude to a Kiss” to “Over the Rainbow” to “Don’t You Worry About a Thing” and “Summer Time” to name a few.”
During break time, Lee enjoys a glass of wine with the two musicians, who have become his dear friends. Lee was enthusiastic about the bar. “They have nine foreign beers, 16 kinds of Sake, and even Asian wine.”
David Lo, owner of Peking Imperial in neighboring McLean, has also been a regular client. “I come here to relax, listen to jazz, and find an atmosphere different from my own restaurant. I sample the 22 kinds of Sushi – shrimp, squid, octopus, eel, and a variety of fish. They are all very fresh. If it’s not fresh, it’s not good. Among the 22 Maki rolls, I especially like the California roll. The tuna is fresh and imbedded with avocado, crab meat, salmon egg, and cucumber, and seasoned with sesame seed. It’s light and tasty.”
Lo has become a good friend of Ly and the two often take off in the early afternoon to walk around Georgetown. A peaceful moment, away from all worry.
At a nearby table, two young ladies from Rumania, a man from Sri Lanka, and an American, all doctoral students in public policy, drink beer and clap at a jazz rendering. Their friends note that Mei’s caters a lot of GMU staff and student events.
One distraction: dishes one party had finished were not cleaned from the table right away but left there until they asked for the bill. “It’s just a little oversight, but the waiters and waitresses should pay more attention to it,” one of the women observed, smiling.
From Asia to Arlington: A Success Story
Sarinda, 38, who came to the U.S. from Thailand 14 years ago to study Economics at Marymount University, recommends the Mongolian Warrior steak. The dish comes on a sizzling metal plate as the waiter pours a secret, steaming sauce on top of it.
As co-owner, Sarinda oversees the cash register and the kitchen, while her husband, 42, greets guests and supervises the bar. The 150 seats, arranged on both sides of the bar, often accommodate companies in the area.
At lunch time, curious clients try Japanese or Chinese dishes in a serene atmosphere surrounded by Japanese murals on top of the bar, while two Japanese chefs fold Sushis and Maki rolls. Chinese murals on the far side embrace a wide wall facing the entrance.
Marianne O’Brien, a Fairfax County Public School administrator has come to celebrate her friend’s birthday, exclaims, “I like the bright lights at the top of the aquamarine walls. I feel I’m under a peaceful, starlit sky enjoying the company of dear friends.”
Mario Alvarez, a grandfather of six who immigrated from Cuba at a young age, is the lucky “birthday boy.” He likes the gentle sweetness and touch of acidity of the Choya Ume Blanc wine, made from a Japanese fruit with an exquisite aroma. The group’s first bottle accompanies grilled scallops, charbroiled short ribs, and stays on sticks. A second bottle is needed for the General Tso’chicken, beef in black pepper sauce, red snapper in black bean sauce, shredder pork Peking style, and fried Tofu with mixed vegetables.
Su, proud father of four children of 12, 10 and 6 (twins), came to the U.S. in 1980 at 14 after two years in a Hong Kong refugee camp. His Vietnamese mother and Chinese father helped him flee Communist Vietnam to join his aunt in Arlington, where he attended Wakefield High School. On graduating, he studied printing at the Arlington Career Center and worked in a print shop.
Su pursued his interests. He studied graphic design and worked in a store that redid posters for the Smithsonian and Guggenheim Museums and the National Museum of Arts. He also learned lithography and worked in a lithograph shop in Virginia. He continued to work during the day and studied Business Administration at NOVA at night.
Wanting to become his own boss, he began to repair homes, then entered the hot market of several years ago as a real-estate agent. A speaker of English, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese and another Chinese dialect from the South, he catered to the large community of Asian homeowners.
Su and Sarinda met and married in Arlington in 1992. With his experience and talent and her financial savvy, the two wanted to open a restaurant where East met West. Asian dishes, Western drinks. Asian atmosphere, Western music.
Today, the Yin and Yang stand in harmonious balance at Mei’s. Why the name Mei? Mei means rice, and the restaurant’s logo shows two hands holding eight grains.
Mei’s has four Chinese chefs who can make 80 Chinese dishes, including 20 vegetarian. Two young Japanese chefs meanwhile prepare fresh food in front of patrons, and three bartenders make cocktails at the bar, especially busy at happy hour. The restaurant also caters for private parties. Mei doesn’t use MSG, only natural ingredients.
On another occasion, Duane Fleming of the Department of Veterans Affairs, another satisfied customer, points out that the different dishes have seasonings that complement each other. He likes the gray sauce on the eggplants that feel “light on the palate.” Valley of the Moon, the California red he selects, also goes well with the dishes Duane orders to fete his 17 friends and, in particular, Ivan Chenoy, an auto safety analyst.
It is on February 29, the extra day that comes every four years with Leap Year, Chenoy, from Hong Kong, is chosen Mei’s “Leap Baby.” “I really enjoy the food here, it’s authentic Cantonese, same as in Hong Kong.”
The Alumnae of the Pan Asia Women, an advocacy group established in the 1970s, chose Mei’s to show a documentary: “The Queen from Virginia.” on its big flat TV screen. It won the Best Documentary at the APA Film Festival in Los Angeles last year. Fourty APA women leaders gathered, on an afternoon of the International Women’s Month in March, to discuss a sprectum of legal, business, social, and cultural issues, including the upcoming Presidential elections.