General Tao’s Chicken From Mei Inn

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

As far as guilty pleasures go, cheap takeout Chinese American food has to be one of the guiltiest of them all. The quality of the ingredients is typically poor, the food itself is bad for you, and you pretty much feel guilty the second you pull the menu from the drawer. Yet despite it being a nutritional black hole, you can’t help yourself from devouring your greasy, triple-sized portion in one sitting with maximum gusto.

One of our favorite guilty pleasures around is the General Tao’s chicken from Mei Inn. Though what makes this iteration of the venerable lowbrow dish so unique is that it almost defies the guilty pleasure formula: delivering wave after wave of pleasure that nearly washes away the guilt. It’s that good.

If you haven’t been, Mei Inn is a divey Chinese American restaurant on 42nd St. and Bloomington Ave. in South Minneapolis with warm service, a devoted neighborhood following, and, oddly enough, a tiny gift shop replete with pan-Asian knickknacks, delicate paper fans, and porcelain figurines. It gives the place a weird vibe, but it’s also charming and even kinda cute. And it gives you something to look at if you have to wait a minute or two for your food.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The menu includes all the standard items you’re used to from places like this, but our weakness for the General Tao’s chicken combo is one that no egg foo young or moo shu pork can compete with. The combo is served with bite-sized crispy cream cheese wontons and a bounty of some of the best chicken fried rice you’ve ever eaten, much less out of a Styrofoam to-go box. You get all this food for the ridiculously low sum of $6.45. Even the price makes you feel guilty, like you’re stealing.

Unlike typical General Tao’s (or Tso’s), with its bland combination of overtly sweet, syrupy sauce and rubbery, dubious chicken parts, Mei Inn’s version tells an entirely different story.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The chicken is moist, tender, and actually chicken-y, with a crispy, deep-fried exterior. The sauce still has the familiar sweetness, but it’s less viscous than what you’re used to, and the use of ginger, garlic, and hot chili peppers is more apparent, the flavors more assertive. Here, they don’t toss the chicken in the sauce, coating all the pieces. They merely drizzle the sauce lightly over the chicken, preserving the crispiness and honoring the work of the deep fryer. But that’s not to say they’re stingy with the sauce, either. Because there’s enough of it pooled up in the chicken compartment of your to-go box to allow for extra dipping — a small, but welcome improvement over most General Tao dishes. Also, you can name your spice level here, one through three. We always go with three. It’s no inferno, but it’s enough to add some heat to the dish’s inherent and sometimes overwhelming sweetness. As far as the rest of the plate goes, the fried rice is simply outstanding: perfectly cooked with fresh veggies that still have a pleasant bite. It’s an excellent companion, and seriously worth ordering as an entree if you don’t care for anything else on the menu. The wontons are just OK, and they could be improved upon if they came with their own special dipping sauce. But again, at $6.45, one feels guilty even raising these modest quibbles.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Not to harp on the decor, but should you decide to dine in, be prepared for a mostly underwhelming, booze-less experience. It’s not grim, but takeout is still the better option (they don’t deliver). Besides, you’ll enjoy your meal a lot more at home on your own couch in front of a new episode of “The Voice,” or whatever other guilty pleasure is calling.

Mei Inn
Chinese-American takeout in South Minneapolis

4215 Bloomington Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55407
Mon-Sat 11am-9pm
Closed Sunday
BAR: None