If you’ve heard of it at all, you probably saw Old Li’s thrust itself upon the late-pandemic social media food scene with the same alacrity as Mexican birria tacos overtook pop-up dinner establishments about town. But while the local hipster crowd luxuriated themselves chasing down an online diaspora of mediocre chili beef, they gawked mostly at the couple lung tablets and saliva chicken on the menu down at Li’s. Expats hailing from cities with richer international dining scenes largely gave it a thumbs-up. Someone made TikTok videos in the style of a classic used car commercial, declaring it “authentic.”
In the outskirts of major food cities in the Atlantic Seaboard — northeast of Atlanta, across the Potomac from D.C., the eastern boroughs of NYC — Li’s would certainly fit right in. Which is to say that Li’s menu and setting might be average and pedestrian in some of those places. But in Charleston? Break out the mooncakes, baby! It’s a New Year, Chucktown!
Li’s is certainly authentic, but not because of what they are. In a city that sold its soul to tourism, Li’s exemplifies what it is not. The young women running the front of the house aren’t feverishly curating bytes of 15-minute social media fame — even if perhaps one day they get wise to the present horrors of TikTok and Instagram — and they’re not front-running a theme-park backed by a mountain of private equity. There was no soft opening, or PR firms with kitschy names. No Garden & Gun exclusive with glossed photos of the only lacquered Peking duck that I know of between here and Fairfax, Virginia.
Li’s doesn’t really jive with your pre-pandemic peninsula crowd. In the last half-decade, you paid extra for a place where you could eat with people that looked predominantly like yourself. But grasping the “authentic” meant dining amongst peoples you’d never consider having over to dinner.
That’s why everyone hailing from north of Pedro’s sombrero has flocked to Bertha’s Kitchen, after all. “Crane your neck, twist it hard, and you can almost see Charleston Harbor from the front stoop,” part-time ESPN food analyst John T. Edge once proclaimed, as if he’d just landed with Christopher Columbus on pristine shores.
The promise of authenticity certainly attracts throngs of customers toting newly acquired sweetgrass baskets, even to “the industrial reaches of Meeting Street Road,” as Edge described it. But the “discovery” never lasts, and “authenticity” devoid of a surrounding supportive community regularly fades into economic oblivion. Modern Charleston is a testament to that. All the press in the world from The Lee Bros couldn’t save Martha Lou’s Kitchen last year. But John T’s from off. Let’s blame him.
So don’t come to Old Li’s because your Facebook pal proclaims it “real” Chinese. Which presumably means they don’t cook standard Americanized takeout fare, nor even the Boston variants of Joyce Chen fame. Li’s offers a competent menu of morsels spanning a Chinese cultural landscape three-times the size of the Indian subcontinent.
So, go for the sweet lychee meat (no actual lychees are harmed in its making) or Fuding pork soup, which hail from chef Xai Yun Huang’s home province of Fujian. Fuding pork is particularly rare in the U.S., but a mainstay of Northern Fujian’s soup-heavy cuisine.
There are other delights from farther afield. Those “lung tablets” don’t contain any real lungs, of course. But the cold slices of braised beef come slathered in delicious chili oil from Sichuan province, with it’s spicy and numbing “Ma-La” flavors. “Squirrel Fish”, a staple of Jiangsu cuisine, likewise contains no squirrels, but constitutes a crispy deep-fried tangle of battered fish slathered in sweet and sour sauce. There is cloud pumpkin beef and that cold saliva chicken (translates as “mouthwatering chicken”) dripping in spicy oil. The common denominator is that it’s all delicious.
So, let’s leave it at that and not call them particularly authentic, or exotic for that matter. Let’s just call them great cooks. And let’s not go there to simply “try something out of our comfort zone” before posting humblebrags on social media. Let’s just go on a random weeknight to sit down and eat. Perhaps they’ll stick around for a while and locals will be able to get a seat.