Ming Cafe: Strong Chinese At A Tiny, Pricey Buffalo Venue

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Ming Cafe
3268 Main St., Buffalo, NY 14214
Phone: 716.833.6988
Rating:    [learn more]
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"Consider this the equivalent of a high-end boutique rather than a mass-market retailer, optimized for couples or small groups with a little extra time and money on their hands."

By comparison with other parts of the country, Western New York is value-obsessed: sometimes, we are collectively so fixated on prices that quality becomes a second or third consideration. Consequently, whereas this area used to have a nice mix of high-class, moderate, and low-end Chinese restaurants, the vast majority of upper- and mid-range places have disappeared, leaving strip mall take-outs to compete in offering nearly identical menus of cheap, fast food-caliber lunches. Like several suburban restaurants we've profiled recently, Buffalo's Ming Cafe bucks that trend. At this U.B. South Campus-accessible place, which neighbors both Shango and a Main Street outpost of Kabab & Curry, a single bowl of soup costs more than an entire combo meal at China King, the pacing is anything but rapid, and the quality is predictably superior. But how superior? Better than Amherst's Gin Gin? Williamsville's Eastern Pearl? Fort Erie's Ming Teh? Though our three-star rating speaks for itself, reflecting generally very good food quality, there are other considerations worth noting here; read on for the details.

While the typical visitor might not describe Ming Cafe's small Main Street location as beautiful, its look and feel gently replicate the sort of class we've seen in high-end tea shops in Beijing: creamy white walls mix with blue tiled floors, green potted plants, and reddish, lacquered wood tables, chairs, and wall inlays, all leading up to an aged, fancy display counter area filled with pictures, tea kettles, and cookies. These elements hint at one reason that we and others sometimes visit the place: it's possible to sit down here for nothing more than a snack of tea and cookies. Ming Cafe offers seven varieties of plain-tasting but interesting-looking cookies, while ten different teas and three coffees, including China's deluxe Ti Kuan Yin monkey-picked Oolong, Japanese green tea, and two Western options, are served for $2.80 to $5 per person, most at $2.80 or $3.50. Understanding Ming Cafe as a tea shop first and a Chinese restaurant second helps to understand its idiosyncrasies; it may offer a full menu, but its light, small family-owned staffing and glacial pace are better-suited to tea and snack service than the demands of a completely filled dining room. Perhaps 30 people could sit inside at once, but over all the times we've visited, we've never seen the place completely packed. "Cash Only" signs in the windows and on the menus might discourage some people; we had to check our wallets before starting to order.

On this occasion, we began our meal with two seemingly simple soups: the Classic Wonton ($5) and the Hot & Sour ($5), items that we've had at countless Chinese restaurants before. Ming Cafe's Wonton was "classic" in the sense that it's closer to the best-of-breed Chinese version than what is served in most restaurants here, possessing large, meaty dumplings with comparatively soft wrappers - not as delicate as in the best versions we've tried, but very good nonetheless. Surprises in the bowl were clumps of tasty thin flour noodles, long-sliced scallions, and a broth that was darker and meatier than the common chicken stock everyone's accustomed to. This bowl might have cost twice or three times as much as the typical takeout variant, but the ingredients and flavors justified the price.

The Hot and Sour Soup wasn't as impressive, but it was good: a thick, very hot, and slightly peppered vinegar-heavy broth with abnormally large, fresh scallion pieces on top, lots and lots of sliced tofu inside, and some mushrooms. Typically, we'd expect to find slices of pork in a bowl at this price - there were none here - and we've paid less for versions that were more distinctive in spicing, flavor, or lightness. That having been said, there was nothing technically wrong with this one save for the fact that it cost too much without offering any major advantage - save freshness, as the bowl appeared to have been just assembled - over what's more commonly and cheaply served elsewhere.

Three appetizers were all in the good to very good category. The best of the bunch was the Minced Chicken with Soothing Lettuce Wrap ($9), which based on experiences elsewhere could have gone so many ways, but wound up being very enjoyable. Ming Cafe delivers an oversized plate with a large pile of finely chopped, soy- and peppered chicken, pre-mixed with onions, green and red peppers, and thick, crispy rice noodles; you then spoon these ingredients and a sweet plum-like sauce into lettuce leaves, wrap them, and eat cool and hot items together. Apart from the fact that there were too few pieces of lettuce on the plate to handle all the chicken, we had no complaints about this dish: the quality of the meat, the modestly spicy soy flavoring, and the combination of crunchy, soft, and semi-soft textures worked wonderfully together. While we've had more sophisticated versions of this dish elsewhere, we'd order this dish again on a subsequent visit here based on its taste and value.

By comparison, our two other appetizers were less memorable, but still solid. Though its name sounded a little plain, a Meat Spring Roll ($2) was beautifully presented and reasonably priced; clearly homemade, its rice paper wrapper was fried to a clean, crisp golden brown, and its combination of pork and vegetable stuffing was good, particularly with the slightly gooey, easy-to-apply sweet and sour dipping sauce. Separately, a bamboo steamer filled with Peking Style Tofu & Spinach Dumplings ($8) arrived with a small dish of soy dipping sauce; the six pieces impressed on size and in quantity of tofu inside - these aren't your typical freezer dumplings - but neither the thick wrappers nor the fillings was anything remarkable. They were a little plain, but again, not bad in any way.

Entrees were stronger, though all on the pricey side. The single best one of the bunch was the Hot & Sour Shrimp, Calamari & Scallop ($20), a mix of thick, large scallops, good-sized strips of squid steak, medium-large shrimp, then onions, peppers, and bamboo shoots, all in a thick brown sauce made from red chilis, ginger, and garlic. Though a dish like this one can easily benefit from a little something crunchy underneath - more of those rice noodles, for instance - Ming Cafe's preparation of the seafood and vegetable elements was flawless, such that the big scallops tasted well-cooked, while the shrimp and squid preserved that special, "just-right" tenderness we always hope to find, too often settling for less. We didn't ask for any special calibration of the natural spice level, but we're certain that this one could be ratcheted upwards nicely with added chili for those with heat-seeking palates.

We're always intrigued to try different Chinese restaurants' takes on "Crispy Beef," and Ming Cafe's $18 version sounded interesting: described on the menu as "our hot favorite," the dish promised to include beef strips and scallions tossed in a combination of sweet vinegar and rice wine. What arrived was something closer to a deep-fried version of Mongolian Beef, complete with colorful red peppers and sliced onions in addition to more of those big, fresh green scallions and large chunks of separately dry-fried, slightly battered meat. It bears mention at this point that it's all but impossible to find standard beef dishes sold at other local Chinese restaurants for much more than $14, and the very best Crispy Beef dish we've ever had locally - at Ming Teh's, in Fort Erie - goes for the equivalent of $13. So when we say that we liked this dish a lot, finding its presentation to be attractive, its pieces of beef large and a little crispy, and its sauce to be a nice mix of sweet, sour, and spicy flavors, there's no qualification there except for one: it wasn't hugely different from what we might get elsewhere for less. It was a good dish, but not a great value.

Last of the entrees was the Hot & Sour Broccoli ($13.50), a sauteed and purely vegetarian dish that uses a lighter garlic and sherry sauce to coat a primary mix of broccoli, mushrooms, cashews, and almonds - the latter two items not often placed in the same dish - plus some onions, carrots, and red chilis. Considerably lighter in sauce than the similarly-named seafood dish discussed above, this dish was generously apportioned with just-right broccoli and mushrooms - neither over or undercooked - and given more than a dusting of full-sized nuts to help add both flavor and texture. While it wasn't as spicy or distinctive as the other entrees, it was an entirely competent, comparatively healthy dish, and one that we'd recommend to any vegetarian diner. The menu's seven other vegetarian dishes are, with the exception of a Spicy Eggplant item, comparatively less exciting, but all priced at the same $13.50 level.

As on previous occasions, we ended our visit by grabbing some cookies - the tube-shaped Cookie Roll and the palmier/pastry heart-like Butterfly Cookie ($2 each) - to bring home for family members who hadn't been able to join us. This led to a low note, but not an unexpected one, as both of the recipients took one bite of each item and declared the cookies to be bland and almost stale. We sampled them this time, as we have in the past with the Almond and other cookies here, and though we wouldn't call them good, ultra-fresh, or distinctive in any way save shape, we wouldn't call them bad, either; they're okay, and best enjoyed with the on-site tea. That said, at $2 a pop, they should really be good enough to stand on their own, and aren't; for those willing to spend a little more, Ming Cafe offers two other dessert options, the $6 Fried Wrapped Ice Cream and Mango Rice Pudding, which we haven't yet sampled.

All in all, the appeal of Ming Cafe is a little nuanced: there is no doubt in our minds that it offers some of the best Chinese food currently available in Western New York, a fact that would normally lead us to settle on a slightly higher rating than the three-stars it has received; on this occasion, we found ourselves thinking and saying the words "very good" over and over from the beginning of the meal to the end, and genuinely enjoying the entire experience of dining there. However, there are times when we feel that higher prices are entirely justified by service, portion size, or quality, but here, they strike us as being on or over the edge. Over the course of this hour and a half meal, drink glasses were too rarely refilled, additional paper napkins weren't offered, and a sense developed that if the restaurant had been much busier - say, more than three tables full - it mightn't have been able to handle the strain.

Thus, while Ming Cafe currently holds one of the highest ratings of any Chinese restaurant in this area, it's important to understand what it is and isn't: consider this the equivalent of a high-end boutique rather than a mass-market retailer, with certain physical space, menu, and pricing considerations that seem to optimize its value for a niche - couples or very small groups with a little extra time and money on their hands. Go in expecting a fast, cheap meal, or try to bring in a party of 10, and you'll be disappointed; suburban options such as Gin Gin and Eastern Pearl comparatively excel at serving atypically good food at more reasonable prices to larger audiences. This is a place for people who appreciate quality, and are willing to make some compromises to get it; judged solely on its dishes, it's quite possibly the strongest Chinese place in the City of Buffalo. Suburbanites have a number of other similarly good options.

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