Noodles are the new sushi, says Kim Pak Chai, chef and co-owner of Mama Chow in Fairfield.
“[It’s] just like sushi bars 20 years ago. Sushi was not well known in America, but now in every corner, we have a sushi bar,” says Chai, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Choi Wai Chow, the namesake of Mama Chow.
Even though the American masses have developed an increasing appetite for Vietnamese pho and Japanese ramen noodles, the U.S. in general, and Connecticut in particular, still doesn’t enjoy the noodle diversity of Asian countries like Malaysia, where Chai and Chow are originally from. The couple and their daughter, May En Chai, who works at the restaurant, are hoping to expand the state’s noodle variety at their new street food-inspired restaurant in the Southport hamlet of Fairfield. While you will find pho and ramen on the menu, these more common noodle options share the spotlight with offerings like the kon loh mee, a dry (broth-free) noodle dish with barbecue roasted pork, and laksa, a spicy curry wheat noodle soup popular in Southeast Asia that is generally made with coconut milk. While available elsewhere in Connecticut, laksa is not common in the state. Chai and company hope to change that.
During an initial visit, I opt for the pork and chicken laksa over the seafood or vegetarian laksa, and enjoy it immensely. The chicken and roasted pork are joined by a shoyu egg, tofu puff and crispy bean curd in a thick, red coconut curry broth. The dish has ramen-style wheat noodles, but the broth is spicier than most ramen broths I’ve had and has distinct but not overpowering curry flavors, and a delightful thickness and creamy consistency courtesy of the coconut milk.
On a subsequent visit, I try the restaurant’s broth-free noodle dishes, the kon loh mee and yaki udon. The yaki udon is served in a spicy, creamy red sauce with calamari that coats the thick tasty noodles. This must-try dish tastes like an Italian pasta dish and leaves me with a dilemma for future visits: do I order laksa or udon? The kon loh mee is also good — the dish’s crunchy noodles and roasted pork go well together — but this dish doesn’t capture my heart the way other food here does.
Though it specializes in more unusual noodle offerings, Mama Chow does not disappoint when it comes to its ramen. The paitan ramen is solid but doesn’t match the laksa or the spicy miso ramen, which has a delicious, salty broth and generous portions of positively succulent pork belly.
Beyond noodles, the KFC bao (a steamed bun sandwich) is one of the best versions of bao I’ve had, featuring crispy Korean-style fried chicken with cilantro, pickled carrot and other spices ($7). Also strong is the pork belly bao, but the fried chicken on the KFC bao is so well cooked it actually outshines the pork belly, which is no easy feat. The restaurant also offers a full bar with some interesting cocktail combinations including the spiked yuzu, which is made with the citrus fruit and vodka.
Sweet and refreshing, the spiked yuzu is a good accompaniment to a meal here. The dessert menu includes ice cream with flavors such as green tea, black sesame, red bean and ginger, and the option to have it in a bubble waffle.
Chai was the original chef at Mecha Noodle Bar’s first location in Fairfield, and his new place has a vibe reminiscent of that restaurant and Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City. There is an open kitchen, bright colors and loud modern pop music playing. It’s a relaxed place but that relaxed vibe doesn’t compromise the quality of the cuisine.
Chai says he incorporates many Sichuan cooking techniques from China, including the use of extreme flavors. However, the focus remains on cuisine from other parts of Asia. “The restaurant that we want to establish is family run with the authentic flavor of our home in Asia,” Chai says. So far they’re doing a great job of bringing less common noodle dishes to the state.
3381 Post Road, Southport
Price range: Small plates $4-$10, mains $13-$19, desserts $3-$7
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Ambiance Modern and hip with an open kitchen, bright colors, and loud pop music. It’s a casual spot that’s affordable but still upscale in terms of quality.
Service Over two visits the staff was friendly and helpful. The restaurant’s co-owner and namesake, Choi Wai Chow, was our server during our first visit and was helpful in telling us about the laksa we ordered.
Food A mix of street food from various Asian countries prepared by a veteran chef. The focus is on noodles, including ramen and pho as well as less common noodle offerings including laksa.