Peter Chang pays tribute to the women in his life, while presenting some of his best food, at Fairfax’s Mama Chang.
★ ★ ★ ☆
Peter Chang comes home to Fairfax, this time in a serene, brightly lit space fit for family outings and spice seekers.
Scallion pancake, Wuhan sesame noodle, chili fried lamb, green beans, dry-fried cauliflower, chili flounder.
“There should be 10,” he says, not missing a beat.”How many peppers are on there?” the manager asks, already knowing the answer, referring to the illustrated count next to the dish of chili fried lamb.
On the menu there are four red chilies, the most possible, which could pass as exclamation marks.
My dining companion and I look at each other, and nod in agreement: We’re ordering anyway.
I trust Peter Chang. It’s not that I trust him to prepare a tame dish—I expect the pleasure-burn-pleasure cycle—it’s that I trust his judgement. I trust his kitchen to find a way to turn heat into something to find joy in. The little pieces of lamb, scattered about with scallion and dried chillies and cilantro, a triumphant trifecta in Chang’s canon—offer a dry, scorching, creeping, visceral heat that makes me cough as much as it makes my chopsticks search for another bite.
Fried chunks of flounder, topping an intact fried fin, induces the same shock of fire. But I found myself nodding along with a friend, on another visit, as she said, smiling, “This is such an enjoyable dish.” We sat back, admiring the plate, where fermented, salty, savory black beans filled in between the lumps of fish with an almost gelatinous, melting interior.
“You can pick at this all night.”
And we did, adding bites of the subtle Buddha-style bean curd roll, like a crepe cake, but with tofu skin, mushrooms and soy gravy, instead of crepes and cream, plated with bok choy, offering a contrast, an impassive partner on a menu full of wild cards, showoffs and scene stealers.
Mama Chang, the latest concept from restaurateur and chef Peter Chang, takes a cue from the women in his life: His mom, Ronger Wang, is an adored home cook, his wife, Lisa Chang, is an accomplished chef in her own right and his daughter, Lydia Chang, runs their business development. Where Chang is mostly known for Sichuan cooking, this menu finds inspiration from the home style cooking of Hubei and Hunan, swapping a reliance on peppercorns for chiles.
Mama Chang’s menu, save for the crowd-favorite scallion bubble pancake (a huge inflated ball of fried dough that puffs out air upon being torn open, and is a good idea to keep on the table as a neutral bite. Plus, that curry sauce is good on its own.), is no copy-and-paste from other menus. There’s not even a safety net here, no egg drop soup, no kung pao chicken.
The menu is set up like many modern American restaurants: a section each for small bites, small plates and family style entrees. And just like some share-everything spots, plates land quickly and virtually all at once. The food is dropped in minutes after ordering. It’s frantic and can be hard to enjoy everything at the same time, not fully immersing in one dish for fear another will be cold before trying it.
But because the onslaught is so enjoyable, it’s hard to be mad.
There are Wuhan sesame noodles, in a rich, nutty sauce coating chewy strands. There are crinkly green beans, snappy, blistery skin, decorated in salty, crunchy specs and dry-fried cauliflower that’s another reminder that “fried” doesn’t always mean greasy gut-bombs. It feels seasoned, airy even, and brutally spicy. Hankou roast cumin flounder, noted on the menu that it comes with bones, is a little like nibbling on a chicken wing or a quail leg. It’s taking careful bites around bone—the gratification is not just in the burn but in the quest to find the little nooks of meat.
The dishes on the spicier side tended to fare better: a roast pork belly in a bun is all crackle, not sumptuous meat, and the bun is awkwardly double the size of the pork. Caramel rice with thin strips of pork belly layered atop the mound of rice is sweeter than dessert. (No really, the pineapple bun and fermented rice cake are just shy of savory, and also really lovely last bites.) The pork belly has sugar and soybean powder sprinkled on top, and while it does provide reprieve from the heat of an array of other dishes, white rice is still preferable. Roast duck is best left to dedicated duck houses and a shrimp dumpling offers little more than shrimp enrobed in a wrapper.
Chinese squash with baby shrimp and goji berries is one of the more calming dishes, but whose simplicity came through, as was the home style soup of pork ribs and lotus root with its easy-to-love bone broth and uncomplicated aura.
The expansive space, minimal and airy, with white walls and light wood, is a departure from Chang’s otherwise drab strip mall locations in Arlington and Fredericksburg. It feels modern and timeless, with no indication of what type of food it may offer. It fits into the evolving restaurant scene of Fairfax County, the city where Peter Chang first cooked and became the known entity he is today.
“Fairfax is home to us. We’re back to our home base,” says Lydia Chang.
It’s good to have you back.