In a closed off area in a popular late night restaurant, Sherry Ma holds a shrimp dumpling securely in her chopsticks and waves it around for the camera.
“You’ve gotta try this,” says Ma, the manager and owner of U & Me, located in Chinatown — 233 Centre St. S.W. to be exact.
Fresh from the kitchen, the translucent little ball of shrimp and dough is steamed to perfection.
On taste buds it explodes with flavour. The texture of the shrimp walks a fine line, staying chewy without tasting undercooked or overdone. Ma says they’re the hardest things on the menu to make.
“Everything is handmade, not machine-made. The procedure [to make the dumplings] is pretty tough, even for me,” she continues, saying her chefs cooking the dumplings make it look easy.
“Other places use the small shrimps, but we order the big ones,” she adds, after some prodding into the dumplings’ secrets. “They’re almost double the price but you can see and taste the freshness.”
Ma’s cooks — some of whom have been with her since day one — have brought many of their recipes overseas from China. However, Ma admits she doesn’t know some of the details in the recipes because the chefs keep them closely guarded, never spilling the beans on the secrets that give the food that extra kick.
But there was one secret she spilled: The meaning behind the name “U & Me.”
“There is no meaning,” Ma says with a laugh. “U & Me is easy to remember, it’s easy to pronounce. It just came up in my mind.”
Since 1999, Ma and her team have been cranking out all sorts of traditional and westernized Chinese food in their downtown location.
The entrance is illuminated only by a single neon sign and a few street lights, making it hard to spot for new visitors.
Up the stairs, hungry folks are greeted by a handful of Asian ladies in pink shirts, black vests and black pants who move quickly, never losing energy even when the place is packed.
The restaurant holds about 200 people and picks up the most steam on the weekends between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., when clubs and bars start shutting down.
The only time U & Me closes is between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., giving staff a chance to clean and get everything ready for the next round of hungry Calgarians.
Margaret Keung is a server at U & Me. She knows the business like the back of her hand and says the restaurant brings in a diverse crowd but at night, a lot of visitors tend to be younger.
When asked who her favourite customers are, Keung breaks into a huge smile and says, “everybody is my favourite!”
Ma elaborates, saying she’s had a handful of local celebrities come visit over the years but the staff is careful to be discreet and usually pictures aren’t allowed.
However, there have been a few exceptions to this rule and after quickly rushing into the back, Ma brings out a picture of late Premier Ralph Klein, saying he was a regular customer back in the day.
Born in China, Ma came to Canada with her family in 1995. Her mother was a housewife and her father was a doctor with a passion for cooking.
Ma says her parents were incredibly supportive, helping her out with a bit of money and advice when things got tough.
In the first year of U & Me’s existence, Ma says there wasn’t a lot of back-up money and there weren’t many people coming to the restaurant. To cut down costs, she kept the hours of the business open for as long as possible.
Originally, U & Me was a Hong Kong-style coffee shop but Ma changed the business plan to focus on serving dim sum, Chinese cuisine that is prepared to be bite-sized.
“Honestly, to me this job was pretty tough,” she says. “It made me stronger. I used to be a very shy person and I just refused to talk to people.”
“I used to work 18 hours a day,” she continues. “I was the one who did the dishwashing and the cleaning. I used to be a machine.”
However, Ma refuses to show any signs of weakness. When asked if she needed to make many sacrifices to keep the restaurant going strong she says, “Not really.”
When pressed, she relents. “Well, when you say ‘sacrifice’ we basically had to change some things. Traditionally, for dim sum, the food has to be very tiny but for the market to accept us, we had to make things not as before,” she says, adding that portion sizes needed to be bigger for her customers.
Even in the face of minimum wage hikes and some restaurants taking hits — or closing down completely — Ma says she will do everything she can to keep her loyal staff.
“I can not worry about that. I have to stop that from happening,” she says when asked if she’s worried about losing people, adding that she’ll happily shell out more for extra benefits to keep her staff stay by her side.
On this particular evening, Ma highlights some of the women who have been with her for a long time while Keung, a 16-year U & Me veteran, refills her tea.
Holding down the front entrance is Carmen Chen, a short woman who has been buzzing around the restaurant for 14 years.
Ling Peng zigzags from table to table carrying a colourful array of fried squid, ginger beef and chicken feet while Nicole Yan follows, armed with two teapots full of green tea. Peng has been there for 12 years while Yan has been around for seven.
When asked about balancing her home and work life, Ma says finding a balance wasn’t challenging because her parents helped take care of her two children when she wasn’t home.
“They’re so independent,” Ma says about her teenagers. “They understand me and they learned how to be tough. When we see a problem, we only focus on solving the problem and not the problem itself.”
“It runs in the family,” she says. “Even if I’ve faced a lot of challenges, I don’t give up.”
“U & Me is easy to remember, it’s easy to pronounce. It just came up in my mind.” – Sherry Ma
Ma’s tenacity has paid off, letting her step away from the daily operations of U & Me so that she can spend more time with her kids.
Even when asked about whether or not it was tough to step away from daily grind, Ma won’t waver.
She says that she worked hard in the beginning because she wanted to earn enough income so that she wouldn’t have to worry about her personal finances and she has now reached that point in her life. The daily operations have been turned over to her staff.
“Now I can be myself and enjoy my life,” she says with a laugh, adding that she has a lot more freedom by stepping away.
She also plans on passing the restaurant down to her kids.
Back inside U & Me, Ma smiles to herself as she sits back into her chair, watching her bustling staff carry trays of sweet and sour pork and seafood fried rice from the kitchen to the tables of hungry customers.
“This place brought out the new me,” she says.
What To Get at U & Me
The top three most popular items to order late at night.
Editor: Abby LaRocque | firstname.lastname@example.org