By Corbo Eng
Arturo Mei was looking for a change.
“I was working 80-90 hours a week. My work-life balance wasn’t there. I’d go home, sleep and then go to work again,” he says of his life as an accountant in Los Angeles.
But then his grandmother died, and during the trip to Asia for her funeral, he found shaved snow. That led him back to Virginia, which led him to open a food truck, which led him to open a food hall.
Food halls are a big part of the culinary moment. They draw from the stalls of decades past, like Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, and are finding new audiences with versions popping up all over the country, like Union Market (D.C.), Pizitz Food Hall (Birmingham, Alabama) and Pine Street Market (Portland, Oregon). Though a mostly urban phenomenon, the suburbs are catching up.
Locally, The Block is setting the pace. When it opened without much fanfare in January, it became Northern Virginia’s first entry in the food hall craze. Located in a former billiards parlor next to K-Mart in Annandale, The Block consists of five eateries and a bar with its own menu.
There’s Roots, a Thai street food stall; Balô Kitchen, a modern take on Asian comfort food; Pokéworks, sellers of poke bowls; Munch, an ice cream doughnuts concept; and SnoCream Company, the brick-and-mortar satellite to the retrofitted school bus of the same name where, for the past two years, Mei, the owner of The Block, sold Taiwanese shaved snow.
At 32, Mei—tall and handsome with trimmed dark hair—defies the nerdy stereotype that might apply to an accountant. These days, Mei, in addition to his usual SnoCream T-shirt, wears the hats of restaurateur, recipe developer and concept designer.
The Block is his idea. Although Mei is Chinese, The Block’s Asian theme wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Neither was the idea of forming a food hall.
In February 2013, while living in Los Angeles, Mei traveled to Guangzhou, China, for his grandmother’s funeral. It was on this trip, which included a stop in Taiwan, that Mei ate shaved snow.
In California, he had been exposed to the popular Taiwanese dessert made from ultrafluffy shavings of flavored ice. Eating it at the source prompted Mei, a lifelong connoisseur of desserts, to leave his desk job and start a career in food.
Born in Colombia, Mei lived in Bogota, where there was a small Chinese community, until age 6, when he and his parents immigrated to D.C. Mei made friends, went to church, played basketball and generally assimilated into American culture. His parents ended up on a familiar immigrant path: toiling as restaurant employees. Both worked long hours—his father a chef and his mother a waitress—at Kam Fong, the now-shuttered restaurant in Chinatown. The family later moved to Oakton, where Mei went to high school.
In the summer of 2013, before quitting his job and moving back to the East Coast, Mei left for Asia, partly to unwind, partly to eat.
“They’re everywhere,” Mei says of the food halls he encountered overseas. “There’s lots of people there, having fun, eating and drinking. I was so intrigued.”
In fact, it was the conviviality of Asian food halls that led Mei to ultimately name his project The Block. “Everyone comes to the block, and it’s a block party. It’s a community thing.”
In Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, Mei experienced the beehive of activity at food halls there with the staggering variety of selections, from the larger vendors offering many choices to the smaller mom-and-pop ones pouring their heart and soul into mastering one dish.
For the better part of 2014, Mei tested recipes and tossed out more blocks of flavored ice than he can remember.
It was also during this span when Mei modified the school bus he bought by ripping out the seats, installing refrigerators and ice-shaving machines, a service counter and interior side counters where customers can stand and eat and painting the exterior in cool blue and white to evoke winter and snow.
“Everyone has a food truck,” says Mei of his alternative vehicle. “I wanted something different.”
Originally, Mei planned to drive around D.C., but at 30 feet long, the bus did not conform to the city’s food truck regulations. He bounced around various sites—Arlington and Rockville among them—before finding a regular parking spot in the alley just north of K-Mart.
Mei found a steady flow of customers in Annandale. “It was working here,” he says. “We started getting long lines. We could open longer hours, and we were making good money.”
With SnoCream a success, Mei wanted to expand, but the physical confines of the bus didn’t allow for that. Mei needed a brick-and-mortar spot.
He set his sights on the former Myungdong Cafe & Billiards, a vacant storefront he saw daily. At 5,000 square feet it was too big for a dessert shop. “So I thought about my travels,” says Mei. “I said to myself, ‘Hey, let’s do a food hall type of thing.’”
From the outset, Mei had the first stalls planned out: SnoCream, of course. Plus, he wanted to bring craft cocktails to the suburbs (Block Bar) and capitalize on the poke trend. He was going to start his own but ended up becoming a franchisee of Pokéworks.
Looking for more vendors, Mei sought out Huy Nguyen, a friend and the chef and owner of food truck PhoWheels. “Previously, he helped me start up my food bus,” Mei says of his connection with Nguyen. “He has a lot of experience. He has a popular food truck. So obviously, I wanted him to come here.”
Joey S. (his relatives own Pasara Thai) pitched a Thai street food menu to Mei, who latched on to what he thought was an underrepresented style of cuisine in the area.
Mei is quite pleased with how the final stalls complement one another. It even has him thinking about a second, larger food hall, maybe, if The Block is a hit.
In the meantime, Mei is considering hosting a night market in the parking lot in front of The Block.
In Taiwan, where night markets are popular, food vendors, packed along closed streets, hawk all kinds of snacks, hot foods and desserts. Here, he envisions tables, tents and food trucks.
With Mei as the organizer, a block party may be more literal than not. // 4221 John Marr Drive, Annandale
Tay balo, the Vietnamese phrase referring to Western backpackers, helps explain the merging cuisines at Balô Kitchen. As to the specific origin of the food, chef and owner Huy Nguyen, who also runs the food truck Pho Wheels, says, “Don’t dig into it; just take it for what it is.” Nguyen uses modern techniques on comfort food, like his 24-hour sous vide pork belly, deep fried and served with jasmine rice cooked in chicken fat. Also on the menu: spaghetti rigati with fermented bean curd cream sauce.
Block Bar serves cocktails inspired by Arturo Mei’s travels with recipes developed by general manager Jane Park (who created the food hall’s industrial-chic aesthetic, hand-painted the vendor’s logos and designed the oft-Instagrammed Love VA string artwork). Cocktails vary from Homage, an ode to island time with pineapple and black tea, to Dark Side, a wallop of Jameson, Kahlua and cold-brew coffee. Also on the menu: weekday happy hour and snacks from Balô Kitchen chef Huy Nguyen.
With a spring opening planned, Munch’s menu is still being finalized, but this stall by The Block’s Arturo Mei will feature housemade ice cream sandwiched into doughnuts.
Pokéworks, with outlets from California to Massachusetts, opened its first Virginia shop in The Block. Poke, 2016’s breakout trend with Hawaiian roots, is a dish of marinated raw fish. At Pokéworks everything is customizable, from the base (bowl, burrito, salad, noodle) to protein (tuna, salmon, chicken, tofu) to toppings (edamame, seaweed, avocado, ginger, wonton crisps …).
Roots Thai Street Food
Chef and owner Joey S. credits his dad with teaching him how to cook at age 12. After spending his early teens in Bangkok, he returned to Virginia for high school, where he’d practice cooking his favorite street foods. His boat noodles (kuaitiao ruea), based on his grandmother’s recipe, hit all the tenets of Thai cooking: sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter. It’s served with rice vermicelli, rib-eye and meatballs. Also on the menu: tom yum noodles and braised pork with rice.
Arturo Mei, the mastermind of SnoCream (as well as The Block, Block Bar and Munch), likens his dessert to shaved snow. The base flavor and dairy are frozen into blocks then thinly shaved. Flavors include green tea, taro, honeydew and coffee with toppings of fruit, boba, Nilla Wafers, nuts, cereal and jellies. Also on the menu: snotea. –Kathy Phung