When Jay Ho calls himself ‘loud,’ and states that his personal vibe is ‘hot,’ it’s not only a good thing, it’s a tasty thing. “How I dress, who I am, what my personal style is – it’s loud,” he says with a laugh. “I’m just different. But below that surface, I’m quiet and traditional.”
Take all that, and roll it into a ball of Taiwanese cuisine and saturated colors, and you get Mei Mei, Executive Chef Jay Ho’s brand new lounge and restaurant in Old City. “Mei Mei is me, all of me, quite literally.”
That’s a lot to take in when you consider that Mei Mei’s lighting tones are deep purple and panther pink shot through with blood reds all hue-highlighted by theatrical velvety wall panels, generous smatterings of cherry blossoms, and a wall of lucky cats. It’s a good thing that there’s a cocktail program of strong drinks in Mei Mei’s late night downstairs lounge, or you would think that you entered tipsy. Ho said that he and architect James Morrissey of Manayunk hung, got to know each other and their favorite haunt in Out Beach and New York City, and forged all of Ho’s “social elements” into Mei Mei’s design elements.
“Actually that’s something we’re looking to combat,” said Ho, talking about the good and the drunken bad of opening a lounge restaurant in Old City. At 42 years of age, Ho is old enough to remember the lounge renaissance of Old City. “I partied in this neighborhood back in the day and I definitely had my favorite haunts on the lounge scene back then… Cuba Libre, 32 Degrees and hanging out with (Philadelphia Eagles) Terrell Owens.” But, Ho also recalled how the good times of the 90s went to seed by the early 2000s with too many drunks and lots of messy late nights. Ho waited for Old City to outrun its inevitable backlash, and get clean and cool again before creating his own homey, personal version of a lounge with a fine dining program in the OC.
“Let’s Continue to Make Old City Great Again,” could be Ho’s hat.
“Once you get to know me, you know that I like to break the mold,” he said of opening Mei Mei in the unexpected area of Old City as opposed to, say, the Rittenhouse area. Ho looks at his menu – traditional Taiwanese with a modernist twist – too, as a taste and feel that bucks the system.
He points at his fried rice dishes, certainly a mark of Taiwanese tradition, as showing off his kinks. There’s Mei Mei Fried Rice with Taiwanese sausage, onions, Jasmine rice, shallots, fried egg and scallions. “It’s not yellow, that’s a recent thing in the 70s, when it comes to the Jasmine. We’re going back to the tradition – the feel of home, comfort, family and flavor. But, the twists in all of Mei Mei’s dishes are that it is lighter for the sake of health and waistlines, but with just as much flavor as any opulent mom-cooked meal.
“All cultures’ traditions are about what you eat at home – the memories, smells and tastes they conjure,” said Ho. “We’re going to make some new fresh memories at Mei Mei.”