On the Table: At Ka Mei in Squirrel Hill, the Cantonese menu runs from bland to assertive

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"Get the no-flavor doughnut," said Carol Cheng as she took an order. "It's only $2.50."

The co-owner of Ka Mei in Squirrel Hill is a spitfire in a blue turtleneck, jeans and an apron. She and her husband, Kwok-Wah Cheng, arrived in Pittsburgh from Hong Kong in 1985. After opening Tasty in Shadyside then selling it in 2004, the Chengs opened Ka Mei in 2006.

Ka Mei
2209 Murray Ave.
Squirrel HIll
  • Hours: Noon-10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
  • Basics: The translation for “home cooking,” Ka Mei offers both a Chinese-American menu and Cantonese menu, the latter of which offers authentic, interesting home cooking from Carol and Kwok-Wah Cheng.
  • Dishes: Dumplings, congee with century egg, Chinese doughnut, steamed chicken and mushrooms, crunchy noodles, whole fish, salted squid, spare ribs, dow mey, chinese broccoli.
  • Prices: Starters; chicken $11.95-$14.95; beef $11.95-$16.95; seafood $11.95-$17.95; pork $8.95-$12.95; vegetarian choices $8.95-$12.95; rice box $8.95; noodles $5.95-$12.95; soup $3.95-$5.95.
  • Summary: BYOB, street parking, credit cards.
  • Noise level: Quiet.

With a compelling Cantonese menu, a loyal clientele and some of the best Chinese food in a neighborhood bustling with new Asian restaurants, Ka Mei warrants a closer look.

This particular Friday night was my fourth visit to Ka Mei, which translates to "home taste." I brought two friends to the restaurant for a feast from the expansive Cantonese menu, not to be confused with the restaurant's menu of Chinese-American classics.

The Cantonese menu includes dumplings, stir-fry, fish, vegetables, salted meats and a few fried dishes the Chengs grew up on. Fresh herbs are sparse. And those hot chilis of Sichuan cooking are nowhere to be found. In Cantonese cuisine, Ms. Cheng explained, there's a rhythm from bland to more assertive courses, but nothing too spicy.

Ms. Cheng was responding to my question about the "Chinese doughnut" that seemed out of place on the menu. The baton of fried dough looked like a churro and indeed has little flavor. Yet it's addictive, especially for dipping into our first course of congee. Also known as jook, congee is a rice porridge that is bland and under-salted, accented with a century egg that's nearly black, a preservation process that turns the yolk dark and creamy. Congee is "for sick people, invalids or for breakfast," ribbed Ms. Cheng.

Van Gogh posters and weathered photos of food decorate the walls of Ka Mei. Diners sat at three of seven tables, one of which looked like a gerrymandered VIP section with a chain version of the velvet rope, there to prevent people from tripping on a ledge. Muzak played in the background.

As she took an order, Ms. Cheng ran to the kitchen when a bell called from the pass.

"I have to serve dishes when they're hot," she said, apologizing when she returned. "And I'm the only one here."

The table of three started with a pot of tea, but a friend wanted water with his first course of congee. "No water for you until I say. Order later or your stomach will be in trouble." She cited the belief that contrasting temperatures and too many strong flavors in one meal can upset digestion.

Pork dumplings arrived with the congee round -- "Some of the best I've had in Pittsburgh," said my friend -- and they were. Beef with bitter melon was the least interesting dish. I was looking for sharp flavor. Here, the melon is tempered with cornstarchy sweetness.

Ms. Cheng said her favorite dish is the whole bronzini, also known as Mediterranean sea bass. We thought this was an upsell, but it was not. The fish was steamed and layered with strips of ginger, dressed in soy and scallions.

"Don't worry," she said. "I'm a professional." She filleted it tableside with a few deft cuts of the knife, transferring the head and the spine to a separate plate. Simple preparations like this one are often the most delicious.

Dishes that came later were more exciting, like the texture party of the crunchy noodles, a tangle of curls that grew as it soaked broth. Dolloped with shitakes, pork, bean sprouts and carrots, the dish sated an array of cravings. It was especially good with dow may, sweet, bright pea greens with garlic.

Chinese broccoli and its broad stems were heartier; they were welcome greens in the dead of winter. They complemented the chewy salted squid. Hot peppers spiced up the bite, but the dish was too close to run-of-the-mill fried calamari to hold interest.

The last course was the most formidable, steamed spare ribs with fermented black beans. They're cut across rather than lengthwise, which is Ms. Cheng's preference. The result is what looks like a plate of knuckles dressed with sauce and broth. Eating required picking them up like chicken wings and gnawing meat from the bone. They were salty, strong, dark and rich.

After dinner, Ms. Cheng chatted with regulars. She asked my table what they look for in a mate. She held a phone conversation in Chinese to ask her daughter to translate the word "passive," which she wrote in characters on the back of her business card and handed it to my friend.

In between talk, she cheered the New Year with wine. "Happy New Year to me!" she said as she held up her glass to the dining room.

But her toast was not the night's send-off. Ms. Cheng made a last run to the kitchen for caramel pretzel Klondike bars she passed around to remaining diners.

It was a warm gesture on a cold night.

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New ratings guide

A one-star rating is satisfactory. A few dishes or the atmosphere distinguish a restaurant that has room for improvement.

A two-star rating is good. The restaurant conveys a clear mission through its food and drink menu as well as execution of dishes. Service is competent and the atmosphere is engaging.

A three-star rating is excellent. The restaurant is inspired. It features an interesting menu of dishes that show care and skill. The service is polished and the atmosphere is engaging. It may offer a thoughtful beer, wine or cocktail menu that shows knowledge of the genre.

A four-star rating is superlative. A groundbreaking restaurant such as this one pushes diners' expectations for cuisine, service and atmosphere. It is a rarity.

Zero stars are reserved for restaurants that fail to satisfy the basics.

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