Chinatown’s First Restaurant: Mei Kwai Lou

I love a good story as much as good food, and in some cases, I find both at the same time. It’s so great when that happens.

In 1969, Peter Cheng’s parents moved to Paris from Hong Kong and opened the first Chinese restaurant in the 13th arrondisement, Mei Kwai Lou.

Now, Cheng and his wife are running the modestly-priced restaurant, the sort of place that looks like hundreds of others in the city’s biggest Chinatown (there’s another one in the 20th arrondisement, also known as Belleville) – scant on décor, save for photographs and tacky posters of various dishes, with prices in large, bold type.

I found Mei Kwai Lou in “The Ethnic Paris Cookbook” by Charlotte Puckette and Olivia Kiang-Snaije, and was intrigued by the sound of the featured recipe, Salt and Pepper Shrimp with Cognac. I loved that they used French ingredients – in this case, cognac – to make an Asian dish, and I read that at first, Cheng’s parents took monthly trips to London for ingredients.

Innovation, substitution, and improvisation — their story reminded me of what I was trying to do with Tex-Mex in Paris. So off Xavier and I went to the 13th.

We walked in, and Peter Cheng introduced himself to us, and handed us a small plate of shrimp chips (LOVE! — these are now my second-favorite chip to the Frito).

I told him that I’d read about his place in the cookbook, and he sat down with us and went over the menu – and a homemade binder with color photographs — and made suggestions.

I knew that I had to try the Salt and Pepper Shrimp with Cognac. It was amazing. Crispy, with a lovely, light sauce with diced green pepper and onion.

And the Boeuf Loc Lac, a Cambodian and Vietnamese dish with marinated beef, soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and lime. It was tastiest and most tender beef that I’ve had in Paris, and I loved the tomato rice on the side. It sort of reminded me of Mexican rice, but more tomatoey.

Xavier and I love Asian food, and more often than not going to the same places over and over again. But now Mei Kwai Lou’s on the list, and I have a feeling that we’re going back really soon.

Mei Kwai Lou
1 rue du Moulinet
13th arrondisement
Metro: Tolbiac