Restaurant Review: Poong Mei

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

From its sign outside, Poong Mei - aka Spring of China - claims it's a Chinese restaurant. And you do pass through a red and gold imperial-type "China gate" portal to enter the place's dining room. But one gaze at Poong Mei's menu or the food laid out on its busy tables (many filled with obvious regulars) informs you that while this self-described "Asian bistro" is more Chinese than Japanese, neither is the dominant ethnicity. Because while Poong Mei certainly has Chinese and Japanese appendages, its head, heart, body and soul are purely Korean.

Ambience-wise, Poong Mei is neither particularly distinguished nor bad looking. Lived in but not dumpy, it's got a sort of past-its-prime small-town country club vibe. Likely its most standout features are a huge, sports-tuned projection TV and goofy, piped-in stringy music, which could've been exhumed from the soundtracks of melodramatic 70s movies. So the food's the thing at Poong Mei - and fortunately the food is very good.

A sensational shareable starter was an octet of obviously homemade Steamed Pork Buns ($8). Served on a steaming metal tray, they were beautiful snow-white pillows with puffy, delicate, melt-in-your-mouth textures and lovely, mildly fermented, sourdough-like flavors. Inside each was a wildly juicy scallion-flecked clump of lusty, sausagey ground pork.

Also great was a more robust group meal-igniter which could equally serve as a large entree for a single diner - Seafood Noodle Soup ($10, comes with a fine array of "ban chan" small plates). In a super fragrant, medium spicy red broth were Poong Mei's phenomenal housemade noodles (long, thin, silky and springy) plus bits of tender seafood like green mussels, little shrimp, cuttlefish and octopus. A handful of veggies - like sweetening carrots and earthy greens - rounded out the bowl's happily married flavors.

The hits kept coming - as did the sweet deals and healthy meals - with the "Cuddled Tofu Soup with Beef Short Rib" ($12 - I got the vegetarian version). A bold, garlicky and mildly spicy chili broth held lots of wiggly bits of silky tofu plus veggies like unmushy zucchini and cloud ear mushrooms. At the last second, a raw egg had been dropped into the gurgling hot broth - and I was amazed how much it enriched the soup when I broke the egg's yolk and stirred it through the quick-cooking pot.

But wait, there was more! The super-satisfying, lean soup (which included ban chan) had a fatty accomplice in the form of irresistible kalbi (three bone-in short ribs) slathered in a sweet, thick sort of barbecue sauce.

Poong Mei's terrific housemade noodles were the basis for a dramatically all-black stir fried Zhang Mun ($11). Looking like a dish of squid ink-sauced pasta but tasting like the marvelous (if a bit greasy) Asian stir-fry it really was, this nifty noodle-athon united pork, tiny shrimp, a lot of onions, veggies and assorted seafood bits in a salty fermented black bean sauce.

Whether it's that Chinese-style dish, or a neat Chinese-Korean hybrid like Shredded Pork with Hot Pepper ($12) or a great, straight-up Korean Hot Stone Bi-Bim-Bob ($10), Poong Mei does it well, inexpensively and with genuine flavors.

To read G.A. Benton's blog, visit ColumbusDiningGuide.com

Spring of China

Phone: 614-273-9998

4720 Reed Rd.

Columbus, OH 43220

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday