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Boston Born: Mei Mei Is Double Awesome

For most people, the idea of being cooped up in a confined space with their siblings sounds like a special circle of hell. Make that confined space a food truck – a hot, high pressure food industry environment – and it begins to sound like insanity.

“We’ve for sure run into disagreements, and had sibling fights, but we’ve also learned a lot about how to work with each other,” says Margaret Li, one of the three co-founders of the sibling run food truck and restaurant, Mei Mei.

Margaret, Irene, and their brother Andy Li make up the foodie family behind the Asian-themed eatery, which began six years ago, when the three of them were living far away from each other. Irene was in upstate New York, Margaret in London, and Andy in the Boston area.

“Mei” is Margaret’s nickname, but the restaurant’s name means “little sister” in Chinese.

“My brother started getting antsy working in fine dining,” Irene says. “He started thinking about opening his own business and food trucks were just starting to happen in Boston.”

He recruited his two sisters, who unbeknownst to him were also doing a lot of food industry work. The two Meis had been running pop up eateries in their respective cities, and collaborating on a food blog for over two years. They both came home to Boston, the band was back together, and the Mei Mei food truck was born.

The food truck the siblings painted by hand still sells the largest volume of food of any of the company’s outlets. Irene sits on Boston’s food truck committee, along with about nine other successful meals on wheels entrepreneurs.
“The three of us had all been very heavily involved up until about last year,” Irene says. She is now in charge of running the day to day business, as both of her siblings have younger children, and Margaret moved to Atlanta.

One of the goals of the business, Irene says, was to serve as much regionally sourced food as possible, and particularly pasture raised meat. She’d had spent a lot of time on farms and going to farmer’s markets when she had first gotten interested in cooking at college, and while some of her ethos towards food was intellectual, she admits most of it was emotional.

“What I really found was that understanding food and having an appreciation for all of its good qualities just made eating and cooking a lot more meaningful,” she says. “Food can be very magical if you understand its story and the people behind it.”

The Three Sisters Dumplings are filled with corn, beans, and squash. “The Three Sisters” is the name applied to the process of growing the three crops symbiotically, which is originally from native American agriculture, Irene says.

You may even describe some of the menus items at Mei Mei as somewhat magical. Some of the staples are scallion pancake sandwiches with pesto, cheddar, and bacon; bean, corn, and squash filled dumplings; and kimchi fried rice with hot dog bits. It’s a unique blend of Chinese influence and, well, pretty much everything else.

“The food seems like it has multiple personalities, and that’s sort of because it does,” Irene says. A lot of the menu is inspired by the Chinese food the family ate growing up, but like many immigrant families, their childhood palette wasn’t limited to one one type of cuisine. And their dishes are reflective of that.

Irene points out some of the framed news clippings about her grandparents’ restaurant, in White Plains, NY, that hang on the wall of Mei Mei.

About a year and a half after opening the food truck, the Mei Mei team began to realize the limitations of meals on wheels.

“Boston requires every food truck to have a permitted kitchen that they work out of,” Irene explains. If they don’t have a restaurant to call home base, they’re renting commercial kitchen space by the hour, or by the square foot.

And so, eighteen months after their truck hit the road, the siblings opened their restaurant in the Fenway neighborhood. Not only did having a stationary kitchen grow their business with a sit down dinner service, it also allowed them to try new things and experiment with dishes that required a lot more prep than they could afford when paying by the hour.

In addition to the Fenway restaurant and the food truck, the company also runs an outpost out of a shipping container at the Innovation and Design Building in South Boston. Whereas the food truck is supplied by the restaurant, Margaret says that everything served out of the shipping container is ordered and prepped on site.

Though the scale of the operation has changed, the quality of the food has not. Mei Mei still buys from as many local farms as possible, and Irene even says that almost all of the ingredients in the company’s market bowls — hearty salads available at both the food truck and South Boston shipping container — are sourced from within 400 miles of Boston.

“We do really emphasise working with small businesses,” Irene says. When you’re buying from a smaller farm, the money isn’t going towards somebody getting another yacht, she says. “It goes to get their kid braces, or put gas in their car.”

Since Margaret moved to Atlanta, the three siblings may not all be within 400 miles of each other anymore, but they’re each still very involved with the business. Irene runs the day to day operations, Margaret is working on the brand’s marketing and forthcoming cookbook, and Andy will soon be hitting the road again, in a new food truck called The Beer Mobile, pouring local brews at parties, events, and festivals.

And despite the high pressure environment of the food industry, they’re all still getting along.

“There are upsides and there are downsides,” Irene says. “But there is no one I would’ve rather done this with.”

One of Mei Mei’s chefs, Benjamin Stroud, prepares some dumplings for the fryer. “It’s really important to me that we’re not a place where one person comes up with the entire menu,” Irene says. “We try to be relatively non-hierarchical with our structure.”
While she’s in Atlanta, Margaret is working on the company’s forthcoming cookbook. The focus will be on applying lessons the sisters have learned in the kitchen to home cooking.
Some of Mei Mei’s sauces are for sale at the restaurant’s register. They’re a blend of classic Asian flavors with regional twists, like local apples or sweet potatoes, Margaret says.

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Yelp connects people to great local businesses, and in our Boston Born series, we’re sharing the stories behind some of the highest-rated, locally-owned biz in and around the city. Features researched, written and photographed by Lloyd Mallison. To read what Yelpers have to say about the featured biz, download the Yelp app.