The original East Village branch of Mee Noodle Shop closed its doors back in 2006 after a fire gutted the building. In its wake came a shiny new condo complete with a Starbucks. Mee Noodle was beloved in the neighborhood for offering a cheap and relatively tasty pan-Chinese menu that, when they opened and for much of its 15-year run, was superior to any other Chinese restaurant that lay between the Village and Chinatown. These days the menu, which is essentially the same as it was apart from some price creep, seems dated, and the amalgam of Cantonese and Sichuan dishes with Chinese-American staples is harder to swallow. There's even the oh-so-'90s "healthy" option for spinach noodles if you ask!
In the meantime, New York's Chinese food has evolved. Diners now know that "Chinese food" isn't a single category; they look for Sichuan or Cantonese food in restaurants specializing in those cuisines. And a rush of new options for quality Chinese—Han Dynasty, Hot Kitchen, Xi'an Famous Foods, and even Grand Sichuan—make Mee far less relevant, except for the gentle price.
In the closing monologue of Goodfellas, Ray Liota playing mobster Henry Hill grouses about his life in witness protection: "I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup." The Cold Noodle with Sesame ($4.50) will make you feel the same way if you have had the dish at any number of restaurants about town. Mee Noodle Shop's version tastes like spaghetti with peanut butter, with a handful of sesame seeds thrown on top for good measure, a pretty uninspired rendition. Beyond the price, there's little to recommend.
The Shrimp Toast ($5.30), on the other hand, is pretty much what you expect and want in the dish: fried to a deep bronze yet relatively light and crispy, avoiding all sogginess. The shrimp paste within has a mild, unobtrusive flavor.
Disappointingly, the heaping bowl of Mixed Dumpling Soup ($7.50) over your choice of noodles (I went with chow fun) had next to no flavor, with watery broth and leaden dumplings that cried out for seasoning.
The Orange Beef ($12.50) is one of the pricier menu items and is perhaps on the small side considering the other offerings. Like the shrimp toast, it's a decent rendition of the dish. At least there is some seasoning, by virtue of the gloppy, sticky sauce and the beef is fried to a perfect crisp with just enough chew to let you know you're eating meat.
I'd be remiss not to mention that the service is superb. Waiters couldn't be friendlier or more accommodating and the room, spacious and shiny-new (although perhaps a bit bright!), makes a good place for large parties. The knives, forks and salt shakers sitting along soy sauce on the table certainly make the place tourist and out-of-town-NYU-parent-friendly. This, coupled with low prices, should keep Mee Noodle busy.
It's not that the food is bad, but for a few dollars more you can do better in the neighborhood. That said, I'm glad that Mee has reclaimed its space on the block, rather than a 7-11 or dollar slice joint.