O’mei, which is the name of one of five holy Buddhist mountains in the Sichuan province of China, has been around Santa Cruz for 34 years. At its start, it was a Chinese eatery near the University of California Santa Cruz campus in 1979, then three years later, the restaurant was moved to its present site in a small strip mall on Mission Street.
Roger Grigsby, owner and founding chef, studied Chinese at UC Santa Cruz and has lived and traveled extensively in Taiwan (including several long trips by bicycle). Before opening O'mei, he trained under local chef Francis Tong who introduced Sichuan food to Santa Cruz and cooked for the Swan Heavenly Goose downtown (now defunct). Grigsby notes that the restaurant makes its own tofu using a special fermented bean paste and high quality Sichuan peppercorns. Many of the dishes and spice blends originated from the knowledge he gained during his Far East travels.
O’mei seemed to have had its ups and downs over the years with changes in pricing philosophy, management and remodeling. For example, a 10-15 percent service charge was once automatically applied to the bill several years ago. It was based on a European style of automatic tipping. The idea was to even out kitchen staff earnings but was met with tipping confusion and resistance by many of its patrons. The practice was dropped but its image was bruised temporarily. Over the years, some have rated the restaurant with low marks for inconsistent service, long waits, or food preparation. Personally, I have eaten at the restaurant at least a dozen times in the past years and have never experienced the issues.
Viewing the restaurant from the outside, one would tend to drive on by … if even notice it at all. Tucked away on Mission Street near Swift Street, this place can be easily missed since it does not have front fascia decor like other restaurants. Instead, there is a big sign near the roof almost like a mural on a brick wall and the entrance is through a door at the corner of the building. The interior ambiance is the opposite of the drab exterior. The entry way leads to the bar, lounge and waiting area. The diner is surprised by the transformation: subdued lighting with tasteful furniture and decorations – no golden Buddhas, dragons, or tacky nick-knacks. The dining room decor has a similar theme of upscale flair with an understated elegance. Simple sophistication enhanced by intimate lighting and Chinese art and artifacts.
Shortly after sitting down, the waiter offers a platter of about eight tasty little appetizers called "small dishes" ($4 each). I have sampled their glazed sesame cashews, among others, and they are delicious. It is a nice touch to be able to nosh while looking over the menu.
It is difficult to recommend any one dish at O'mei – the choices are varied and creative. Order a selection of items and share. The entrée dishes are typically $10 to $17 per selection (about two bucks cheaper for take-out}. For appetizers, be sure to try the dumplings in red oil sauce -- filled with minced pork and veggies, dressed with spiced soy and chili.
On this night, we ordered three dishes and shared them. Cui Pi Orange Beef…crisp steak slices with toasted chili, Sichuan pepper and fresh orange sauce. Mu Shu Pork…pork loin shreds, eggs, cabbage, tree ears and vegetables (served with four homemade mandarin pancakes and sweet bean paste). San Xian Chow Mein … shrimp, chicken and pork with Chinese greens, bean sprouts and Shanghai noodles in a mellow-rich garlic-chive saute The portions for all the dishes were adequate for three and even had leftovers.
Without a doubt, the dishes at O'mei are less greasy and have better quality ingredients than other Chinese restaurants. The prices are moderate for their high-end Chinese menu. This is not Panda Express by any means and your palate will not be disappointed. Think fresh food, variety, lots of veggies, expertly made and presented, all with an Asian flair ... that's O'mei. The taste buds will experience soft and crunchy, salty and spicy, sweet and hot sensations – hitting all cylinders of culinary pleasure.
Loyalists return again and again for the spicy Sichuan fare dished out at O’mei. Even though it's a bit costlier than typical Chinese, it's still wallet-friendly with solid service, and still better than any other Chinese restaurant in Santa Cruz … and I will say one of the best of the Chinese restaurants I have dined at anywhere. The bottom line is I would recommend O'mei to anyone in the mood for Chinese, especially if your personal taste favors fresh, creative and gourmet delicacies. Lunch and dinner is served daily except on Monday, the staff's day of rest.
2316 Mission Street
Santa Cruz, CA
Tel: (831) 425-8458
UPDATE: August 20, 2017
O'mei closed its doors in August 2017 in the face of a boycott and online backlash against the owner for political donations made in 2016.
You can read all the details in the Santa Cruz Sentinel article (link below).
If the restaurant reopens, we will post it here in a follow-up.