Where: Mr Meng Chongqing Gourmet, 384 Elizabeth Street Melbourne
What: If Szechuan peppercorns are your jam, these noodles Are the One
Who: Ox Tongue Soul Sister and Proud Perthian
Bloat score: 1 – Had to loosen my belt a notch
I must be the person in my friendship circles who is least familiar with the cult favourite Chinese dating show If You Are The One and its host, Meng Fei, but I am familiar with the Melbourne dining scene and jumped at the opportunity to sample Mr Meng Chongqing Gourmet, the Chinese noodle chain’s first Australian restaurant.
Although Meng is best known as host of If You Are The One, he is also at the helm of a noodle restaurant empire that began in Nanjing in 2014. Popularising the famed noodles of his hometown Chongqing in southwest China, Meng is now operating 11 noodles shops under the Mr Meng moniker.
Mr Meng is tucked away in an unobtrusive side street off Elizabeth Street, which only added to the sense of intrigue generated by the opening of this restaurant, compounded by the fact that there is no menu for the restaurant on Zomato.
The menus that you do receive upon arrival in the restaurant are more akin to takeaway menus – flimsy and paperweight, with words written in every direction, requiring you to rotate the menu to read everything on it. Mandarin characters take centrestage, while each dish is given a star rating that we come to find symbolises its chilli content.
Now normally I’d be hankering for the five-chilli dishes, but prior research about Mr Meng had revealed to me that the type of spiciness the restaurant specialises in is that of the Szechuan peppercorn, tongue numbing variety, which I am not a big fan of. There are not many tastes I dislike in this world – although, as my mum knows, raisins in her biryani is up there – but Szechuan peppercorns are one of the few. I reason that I like food so much it’s a shame for my tongue to be numbed in the pursuit of my latest favourite flavour, particularly when my deadened tongue is accompanied by a lingering aftertaste reminiscent of aniseed. I much prefer the pungency of chilli peppers, but this is purely a personal preference.
Why I decided to pay a visit to Mr Meng is anyone’s guess, but I put it down to FOMO. What if these noodles turn out to be the best noodles I’ve ever tasted?
I choose carefully, however, and decide to go for the zero-chilli noodles in broth with pickles and shredded pork. Melbourne being Melbourne, it is cold and blustery when we visit, and I feel like something soup-based. Normally I’d be too proud to order the least spicy dish on the menu, but my fear of Szechuan peppercorns is so great I ignore my pride and become that person who orders butter chicken at an Indian restaurant because they can’t tolerate spice.
My Ox Tongue Soul Sister, who is my soulmate in food and in life due to our shared love of the Japanese delicacy gyūtan and of each other, goes for a Chongqing specialty and Mr Meng’s personal favourite – noodles with peas and pork mince. Because she likes ox tongue as much as I do, we jointly convince Proud Perthian – my favourite Western Australian – to share the appetiser of sliced beef and ox tongue in chilli sauce with us.
Proud Perthian also professes to not be a fan of Szechuan peppercorns but is living life on the edge and goes for the braised beef noodles, which has a four-chilli rating.
As soon as I have a taste of the sliced beef and ox tongue in chilli sauce, I know I’ve made the right decision with my safe choice. The sliced ox tongue are swimming in a pool of Szechuan peppercorns and try as I might to avoid them, the piquancy of the peppercorns is overwhelming and my tongue subsequently goes numb. Ox Tongue Soul Sister and I decide we much prefer the thinly sliced ox tongue tossed with chilli and onion in gyu tan don, if we had to make a choice between how we like our ox tongue to be cooked.
Proud Perthian is becoming more nervous and for good reason; when her dish arrives, she discovers it shares the same Szechuan peppercorn base as our appetiser. Everything about the dish is fine – the thin handmade noodles are sturdy and flavoursome, while the braised meat is tender – but it is simply inundated with Szechuan peppercorns and immensely oily.
I breathe a sigh of relief as my dish arrives. The only FODMAP-friendly aspect of my dish – the green parts of the spring onion – sit atop the same sublime noodles that feature in Proud Perthian’s dish in a cloudy broth with pleasingly salty shredded pork and refreshingly sour thinly sliced pickles. I greatly enjoy my dish, but try to downplay it for Proud Perthian’s sake.
We are both overcome with overwhelming envy when Ox Tongue Soul Sister’s dish arrives. Demarcated into two halves, stewed chickpeas sit alongside a rich blanket of pork mince marinated in dark soy sauce, with a bed of noodles sitting underneath. I steal a mouthful of pork mince and it is strongly flavoured and moreish, while the stewed chickpeas taste distinctly different to chickpeas that we’ve ever tasted.
My envy gradually turns into relief when Ox Tongue Soul Sister discovers her noodles is sitting in a bed of, you guessed it, Szechuan peppercorns! She likes them more than Proud Perthian and I do, so it doesn’t faze her, but she does concede that it overpowers every other flavour by the time she gets to the end of her meal.
My distinctly wheat flour-rich noodles is my first intolerance breach of the week and so my stomach holds up reasonably well. But the game of Russian roulette that Szechuan peppercorn haters have to play in Mr Meng is too costly, as Proud Perthian belatedly realised, for us to be hurrying back to this establishment.
If we are to assess Mr Meng by virtue of its noodles and its noodles alone, however, it is a restaurant worth visiting.
Mr Meng Chongqing Gourmet is open every day from 12pm to 10.30pm.