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Laguna Beach Artist Turned Chef Opens a Cantonese Street Food Concept in Costa Mesa

Artist Jo Situ Allen, with the help of partners Sumter Pendergrast of Sidecar Doughnuts and Stuart Dooley, hopes to make rice rolls the next big thing.


Mo Mi Mei co-founders, from left: Stuart Dooley, Jo Situ Allen and Sumter Pendergrast. Photo courtesy of Mo.Mi.Mei
 

Growing up in Kaiping, China, Jo Situ Allen lived above an open air market. As a young girl, she remembers running downstairs to order her favorite dish – shrimp wrapped in delicate rice noodles doused in soy sauce.


After immigrating to America at 6 years old, she arrived in L.A.’s Chinatown before settling in Irvine as a teenager in 1996. Her professional career took her down many paths, from science to art and now the culinary world. 


Allen’s favorite food from her childhood was cheung fun, or Cantonese steamed rice rolls. She recreated her own version by melding traditional flavors with fresh, local ingredients that reflect her California upbringing. That signature fusion is the highlight of a new fast casual restaurant in Costa Mesa called Mo.Mi.Mei. The soft opening was two weeks ago, and the grand opening is slated for Friday, July 26.


“I am Chinese American. I go to yoga and the farmer’s market,” the Laguna Beach resident said. “The food reflects my lifestyle and my heritage – it’s California cool with a twist.”


Not only is Allen executive chef and co-owner of Mo.Mi.Mei, her work as an artist also garnered her Laguna Art Museum's Directors Circle Artist of the Year award. As a multimedia artist, she is also known by the moniker, “Dirty Eraser.” 


While this is Allen’s first food venture, she has partnered with a heavy hitter in the food industry, Sidecar Doughnut founder Sumter Pendergrast. The Costa Mesa resident opened the first Sidecar shop in 2013, and has since opened six other locations throughout Southern California. Stuart Dooley of Dooley Creative Co. is the third co-founder of Mo.Mi.Mei.


Pendergrast came up with the cheeky name – it is the endearing nickname his father-in-law gave his wife Chi-Lin, who hails from Taiwan. Pendergrast loved eating authentic Chinese cuisine with his in-laws, but was often dismayed at the refined seed oils and factory-farmed meat in restaurants.


Rice Rolls as the Next New Trend

Pendergrast and his wife were toying around with the idea of a healthier Chinese food concept when they tried Allen’s rice rolls, and immediately fell in love with the light, fresh flavors.


Other Asian food concepts have crossed over to the American landscape like sushi and boba, and Pendergrast hopes rice rolls will be the next new trend.


“I picked steamed rice rolls for that exact reason – it has never been done as a stand-alone concept,” he said. “It is novel, fresh, made-to-order and affordable. It fits all the criteria.“


Mo.Mi.Mei offers five variations of the classic cheung fun, with pork, beef, shrimp, chicken or vegetarian options. Made to order, delicate and chewy rice noodles are filled and rolled with meat and vegetables and topped with a savory sauce. The light yet filling meal starts at $12 with “Glow-Up” and extra protein add-ons.


PHOTO 1: Farmer's Market steamed rice roll - poached chicken breast, egg, cilantro, romaine, mint, dill, seasonal citrus, special sauce, almonds and sesame. PHOTO 2: In the Mood for Love steamed rice roll - caramelized pork, egg, green onions, topped with chives and sesame. Photos courtesy of Mo.Mi.Mei

 

In the Mood for Love features caramelized pork, egg and green onions, with a $2 Glow-Up option of romaine, Thai basil, extra pork and peanut sauce.


Five-spice beef is the star of Enter the Dragon, which is combined with shiitake, egg and cilantro. Pearl River is the shrimp version while Farmer’s Market is a fusion dish with poached chicken, a fresh citrus medley, mint and almonds.


Vegetarians can enjoy the Emerald Forest (omit egg for vegan) with shiitake, egg and a tangy cucumber salad.


Classic congee and house-made Cantonese-style pickles with organic cabbage, asparagus and carrots in white vinegar, garlic and raw sugar round out the menu.


Rice rolls were invented in the 1930s as a quick and easy way to get a healthy meal, said Allen. These days most dim sum restaurants use pre-made flour to make their noodles, but Mo.Mi.Mei does it the traditional way with fresh rice milk. They even imported a marble stone mill from China to make freshly milled milk each day with rice and spring water.


When an order comes in, the prepared rice milk is poured into a rectangular pan and steamed, while various fillings like egg, meat and vegetables are added and rolled before being steamed together one last time.


The heritage pork and pastured chicken are sourced from Pachamama Farm in Oregon. The homemade chili oil is made with avocado oil, and the soy seasoning is sweetened with maple syrup.



PHOTO 1: Decor at Mo.Mi.Mei: Cantonese-inspired art objects in the entryway. PHOTO 2: Cantonese artwork. PHOTO 3: Steamed Rice Rolls written in Chinese characters. Photo courtesy of Mo.Mi.Mei

 

Seasonal ingredients like citrus, mint and asparagus give a gourmet lift to the usual fast casual fare, but because of their short shelf life and high cost, it can be difficult to maintain a healthy profit margin.


Yet the cofounders of Mo.Mi.Mei are committed to the ethos of putting high-quality ingredients first.


“We will figure out how to pay for it, do what you want,” said Allen of her partners’ attitude during the creative process.


The 41-year-old mother of two graduated from UCLA with a degree in geography and environmental studies, and then obtained a green MBA from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. She is the author and illustrator of two fine art coloring books, one on California native species in Laguna Beach (“The Accidental Naturalist: Exploring the Flora and Fauna of Laguna Beach and Beyond”) and the other on San Francisco.


While reflecting on her various paths in food, science and art, Allen says her values of sustainability and social responsibility were a theme throughout her books and now through Mo.Mi.Mei.


“Environmental and social harmony drives everything I do,” she said. “I want people to experience what authentic home-cooked Cantonese cuisine is like in an accessible, friendly way.”

Mo.Mi.Mei Grand Opening

When: July 26

Where: 1170 Baker St., Unit G2, Costa Mesa

Restaurant Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (closed Mondays)

Information: momimei.com



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