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$20 Dinner

Beloved Bayside Chef Mama Lee Brings Her Taiwanese Classics To Williamsburg

Simple, homestyle food is the star at this new fast casual restaurant near Domino Park.

A table full of Taiwanese food at Mama Lee in Williamsburg.
(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Mama Lee, née Mei Lee, joined the restaurateur class in 2013 when she opened a small, unassuming shop on a residential street in Bayside, Queens—a part of town inaccessible by subway or Citi Bike, and thus unvisited by me. 

Lee's second restaurant, also called Mama Lee and still in its "soft opening" phase, is in a more bustling location. She snagged a double-decker space in that disorienting part of Williamsburg around the luxe residences of Kent Avenue where all the landmarks, both at the retail level and, like, the actual skyline, have almost completely changed in last five years or so. It's a wild feeling to get "lost" on blocks you've walked down a hundred times before.  

Fried egg with preserved turnip, $18. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

The menu here at the Willy B Mama Lee is a pared-down version of the Bayside original, but there's still about two dozen things from which to choose. Lee's famed lion's head meatball, a porcine monster that takes 24 hours to properly prepare, was not available when I went last week, so I ordered her other signature dish: the fried egg with preserved turnip, which is basically a well-done omelet with bits of root-y funk lurking within. 

In 2021, in the New York Times, Ligaya Mishan called the omelet one of the "25 Essential Dishes To Eat In New York City." While I wouldn't go that far, it is a unique, satisfying dish, especially after I dumped some vinegary hot sauce on the leftovers the next day at home. 

Taiwanese fried pork chop, $18 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

All four of my dishes, including that turnip omelet, were, at a minimum, a little bit sweet, and sometimes shockingly so. The fried pork chops, for example, tasted (and crunched) like they were sprinkled with sugar crystals, and the complex, sticky sauce glazing the three cup chicken registers more sweet than spicy, or salty, or garlicky, or ginger-y. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing. 

Three cup chicken, $20. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

My favorite item was probably the zha jiang noodles, the slippery beasts thick with black bean paste and ground pork.

Zha jiang noodle, $15. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Other dishes you'll recognize on the menu include eggplant with garlic sauce, various versions of fried rice, salt and pepper shrimp, and beef noodle soup, which is pretty much the national dish of Taiwan. 

Maybe it wouldn't have been such a sweet feast had I ordered these last four things instead? Lee was unavailable for an interview both times I went to the shop, so I couldn't ask for her guidance, but it's certainly worth exploring. The weird new Williamsburg definitely needs as many good $20 Dinner spots as we can get.

Inside Mama Lee. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

The space at Mama Lee is minimally designed and divided into two sections: a loft area where you'll find most of the seating, and, at street level, the ordering counter and a couple of big group tables, at which apparently you're allowed to bring in your enormous Bernese mountain dog while you eat. The Spotify playlist is all house bangers—think Purple Disco Machine remixes—blasted at an impressively attention-getting volume. One staffer told me that this is a change from the classical music they played when it first opened, after they realized that strings were too snoozy for the neighborhood. Beverages are all nonalcoholic and include a selection of Taiwanese sodas and tea.  

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

The Williamsburg Mama Lee is located at 66 Grand Street, between Wythe and Kent Avenues, and is currently open on Wednesday through Sunday from 12:00 noon to 10:00 p.m. 

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