EMei Restaurant in Philadelphia’s Chinatown
When was the last time you immersed yourself in Chinatown? I have memories of walking through San Francisco as a child. With its bright, vibrant red lights, lanterns, and loads of shop windows filled with souvenirs. Just last year I enjoyed a family stroll through Los Angeles’ but was struck that most of the restaurants did not scream “gluten-free.” When I arrived in Philadelphia, I once again expected to just look on with envy at diners enjoying delicious Chinese food. Then, I stumbled into EMei Restaurant.
From the outside, EMei is very unassuming. It was once I walked in that I knew I was somewhere special. Their vast selection of authentic Sichuan cuisine has gluten-free symbols next to nearly the entire menu. I was in heaven and had barely sat down.
The atmosphere was lively. People of all ages enjoyed their plates and libations. With the amount of folks waiting on delivery orders, it was clear it’s a Philly favorite. To-go bags were brought to the front courtesy of a Ketty Bot who rolled throughout the space.
Dining at EMei Restaurant
Dan Tsao started EMei over a decade ago. A family man wed to a fellow chef, he’s been in the USA for nearly 25 years. His warm and welcoming demeanor truly makes the experience at EMei feel like you’re dining with friends. Since Dan himself is gluten-free, he understands the importance of bringing authentic and high-quality food to everyone regardless of restrictions. The recipes used reminded me how misleading a lot of Chinese food is. At EMei, diners will feel transported to China. Soggy noodles in a white and red to-go box, a common trait in America, have no home here.
It was overwhelming to know where to begin as I perused the menu. Items are served a la carte and family style. I’ll admit, this did make for a bit of a humorous experience for a solo traveler. Since I knew I would want meat entrees, I thought some vegan options were a good start to appetizers. The plate full of dry-fried green beans could have been a meal in itself. They burst with savory flavor and would be a great introduction dish for kids.
Yes, it’s all Gluten-free
Next up I sipped tofu and vegetable soup. The broth did lack a bit of taste but the rest of the ingredients made up for it. As I moved onto entrees, I truly didn’t know where to start but zeroed in on an old classic I’d not had in forever. Honey walnut shrimp. They fry it in corn starch but I never would have known. It was a legitimate dish that took me back to my childhood when I ate plenty of Chinese food and didn’t know what gluten was. It started with a crunch that turned into perfectly tender cooked shrimp. If I were local to Philly, I’d be ordering that at least once a week.
When Dan asked me if I was okay with spice, I didn’t hesitate to agree. The next dish in front of me was one of EMei’s signatures, Chongqing spice chicken. He wasn’t kidding. It began as a slow burn that soon elevated to a high-level spice dish. Good thing I had a crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc to wash it down with (ok. And water). Regardless of the fiery sensation, I would gladly order it again. Next time, I’d pair it with a side of noodles or more soup.
Another heated order was one of Dan’s recommendations, the famous mapo tofu. This one can be prepared with or without pork. It’s ideal for vegans and carnivores alike. It was once traditionally minced with beef and is a beloved Sichuan recipe. Once again, the portion was ample. Two to three diners could easily enjoy any of the plates I had.
Traditional Sichuan Plates
If high spice isn’t your “thing,” EMei still has a vast selection on the lighter end. Eighty percent of the menu is indeed not on the spicy side. Sichuan foods are known for being hot. This is why the heated plates are such a (delicious) staple at EMei.
As I paced myself to enjoy as much as I could of this generous meal, I loved learning about Dan. He makes it a point to be present on the floor and knows his “regulars.” A family affair, his mother-in-law “retired” a while back but soon found her way back to the kitchen. She’s often the first one at the restaurant prepping for the busy day ahead.
The restaurant goes deep despite appearing on the intimate side. It has a capacity of over 150 including a private room ideal for celebrations. It was an honor to tour of the kitchen and see the chefs (mostly from China and Chinese speaking only) in action.
In addition to this heavenly meal, EMei also has a full bar. I enjoyed my wine, which was crisp, light, and very refreshing to my spicy dishes. Dan offered me a cocktail. Although I declined, they’re known for several house favorites and can make anything you’d like to pair with your evening.
The entire staff at EMei was superb. My server, Mark, went above and beyond to ensure everything went well. As soon as he hears gluten-free or notices people ordering GF dishes, he asks if it’s an allergy and ensures as best possible that there’s no cross-contamination.
Philadelphia’s Chinatown is essential to this great city. Do yourself a favor and make sure to dine at least once at EMei if you find yourself there.