Restaurants are like long-term relationships: There’s comfort in the familiar, but care must be taken to avoid boredom from settling in. The risks of the familiar are even greater when a new restaurant sets down its roots in a neighborhood known for turning out excellent versions of the same—or a similar—cuisine.
Philadelphia’s Chinatown hasn’t become known as one of the best in the country by remaining a bastion of the middle-of-the-road. Even the neighborhood’s stalwarts, the ones grown as familiar as a spouse over the years, generally manage to surprise every once in a while. The roasted pork and duck noodle soup at Sang Kee, the venerable Ninth Street duck house, regularly reminds me of why I fell in love with Chinese food in the first place.
This, then, is the central conundrum of M Kee: It’s generally good, but rarely goes beyond that. Which, in this neighborhood, may prove to be a problem.
“Salted pepper corn three treasures” turned out to be a sort of Chinese fritto misto without much personality. Like so much else at M Kee, it was technically proficient—the crispy fried batter encasing the seafood puffing out like clouds, the slivers of hot pepper salty and piquant. But without a trip through a puddle of Sriracha or chili oil, it was a bit boring. A hot pot of seafood and tofu was brought low by a similar problem, each component tasting pretty much the same, the textures all stewed-soft and not terribly interesting. Pan-fried tofu stuffed with shrimp was an oily brick without much flavor.
Other dishes were better. Noodle soup, while not as layered or fat-shimmering as some in the neighborhood, was nonetheless a laudable effort, clear-tasting and honest. Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce focused on the vegetable, which arrived vibrant green, perfectly crisp, and kissed with the condiment’s umami. Fried rice with chicken and anchovies was a more approachable—although less overtly delicious—version of the dry shrimp and salt fish fried rice that sings so transportingly at Tai Lake (134 N. 10th St.).
Soy sauce noodles, like the chinese broccoli, demonstrated the kitchen’s skill with fresh vegetables: Each bite proved to be an adventure, sweet with browned onions, or vegetal with peppers, or spring-fresh with sprouts. This and a cup of tea would make a nice light-ish lunch.
The highlights are probably what you’d expect—they’re hanging right in the window. Excellently named “roast pig” is just that: tender rectangles of remarkably “porky” pork, each resting beneath a layer of cracker-crisp skin that’s a beautifully deep shade of mahogany. Order too much of this and bring it home. It’ll make an amazing next-day snack. Hong Kong-style noodles are wonderful vehicles for the ducks hanging in the window. The complex, gamy density of the sliced bird seemed to have been distilled into the noodles themselves, and each bite was a sweet-peppery reminder of why you should always order a serving of whatever is hanging in a restaurant’s window. (It’s one of the keys to a happy life, like flossing and finding someone to love.)
M Kee is the kind of place you root for: The service couldn’t be nicer or more accommodating, and the restaurant itself, with its cheery orange accents and uniforms, is welcoming. But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that it should have been so much better. The size of the menu may have something to do with it—it reads like mid-career Dickens, which would seem to make it difficult for the kitchen to really excel with many of the dishes.
It’s been busy lately, so it seems to be striking the right nerve, but M Kee is not there yet. I genuinely hope it improves sooner rather than later. With so many great alternatives within walking distance, I don’t think it has the luxury of time to figure things out. Comfort can be appealing, but it’s rarely enough for the long haul.
1002 Race St. 215.238.8883.
Cuisine: Wide-ranging Chinese.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 8am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 8am-11pm.
Price range: $1-$15.95.
Atmosphere: Casual and cheerful.
Food: Comfortable and familiar, but skews a bit bland.
Service: Exceptionally friendly.