In that most American of places, Maine’s bustling beacon of capitalism – Freeport – Li’s offers a fresh, warm taste of Asia.
Freeport is, of course, the ultimate outdoor shopping mall and it has been that way long enough that I hold onto my hazy, late ’60s memories of the “just Bean’s” era like some secret brain treasure. But even with all that outdoors in between stores, the town makes me crazy in about 20 minutes; I need to escape, the perfumed and/or the fake air, the pressing sense of history in all those buildings that once held lives or books and now hold shoes and shirts, most of which are made in foreign lands.
These are the moments when I find myself standing in front of Li’s Chinese Express, a food cart run by a woman, Li Jin, who happens to be from one of those foreign lands (China). She’s parked right on Bow Street, across from Island Treasure Toys, where I have frequently waged tiring wars with my son about the disparity between what he believes I should buy for him (everything) and what I will buy for him (nothing). I stand in front of this cart for just a minute and mysteriously feel better.
Maybe it is about watching something being made, rather than it sitting around begging to be bought. Because there Jin is, standing over a wok, adding garlic, vegetables, meat and noodles or rice in stages, building a meal from a collection of ingredients in a cooler behind her. It steams and sizzles and watching her, I relax. She asks me how much spice I want and I feel nurtured, rather than marketed to.
Li is one of three food carts licensed on public property in Freeport. The cart is seasonal, and part-time (sort of, Jin is usually there seven hours a day during good weather, right after she gets off her 5 a.m. shift as a picker at L.L. Bean). I dropped by recently on a stunning Maine day, the kind where the air is warm, the wind soft, and you expect Freeport will be completely empty because everyone is too sensible to be shopping, but this is not the case. It’s barely noon but there is already a line at Li’s (my lunch date has just come from Bean’s and says employees there told him they eat at Li’s whenever possible).
We get two small containers of things I haven’t tried before – the traditional noodles with chicken are so good I haven’t wanted anything else in the past. Fried rice is something I order about once a decade, and I figure, if anyone can make me see its worth, it is Li Jin. It comes with pork and blessedly, it is not that red stuff, but instead something with actual pork flavor. The small order is $6. The best thing about it is that it feels so fresh and not oily. An order of spring rolls is perfectly crisp, not too heavy on the oil and packed with flavorful vegetables.
We also get a small dish of rice noodles with chicken, which is new to me and is delicious, like a simpler pad thai. Picnicking in the nearby Memorial Park, just a few steps down Bow Street, we agree this is the best item we sample. (At some point in the recent past, Jin added chicken fingers to her limited menu, which has to have pleased many other Chinese noodle-loving parents accompanied by small children.)
The total for all this, with two cold bottles of water, was $19.50. Jin had urged me to get at least one large, but I stuck with the small because my appetite always runs out before the traditional Chinese takeout containers Jin uses are empty (she’s generous, piling them up so high it can be hard to close them). It was the right call; even sharing all three items with someone else, there was enough leftover for me to make a dinner of it. I ate the leftover rice and the noodles standing up in my kitchen, straight from the fridge. I kept meaning to stop and warm them up, but they tasted too good to stop eating. And as seems to always be the case with Li’s Chinese Express, the mood felt just right.
WHERE: Bow Street in Freeport, opposite side of the street from J. Crew and Island Treasure Toys.
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., every nice day between Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. “In pouring rain I’m not here,” Jin says.
OUTDOOR SEATING: There’s a picnic table next to the cart.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes