Fact: When Peter Chang and his future wife, Lisa, were cooking together on a Chinese luxury liner in the 1980s, it was Lisa who held the senior kitchen position, not Peter, who would go on to become famous in the United States for his collection of restaurants, most bearing his name.
The anecdote is shared by their daughter to explain the couple’s latest establishment: Mama Chang in Fairfax, “a celebration of women in the family,” says Lydia Chang, chief of business development.
How eager were some of us to taste the newcomer? Lydia says Mama Chang received about 1,000 guests a day on its opening weekend in March. Good thing the space can accommodate almost 200 customers, some of whom, she says, had been following her father’s work since he opened his first restaurant, China Star in Fairfax, 16 years ago.
Mama Chang incorporates the homestyle dishes she said she grew up eating, based on recipes from her mother and grandmother, Ronger Wang, a former longtime farmer in Hubei in central China. Hoisting glassy sweet potato noodles, squiggles of pork and pickled mustard greens in my chopsticks leads me to believe Lydia had a happy childhood. I know the dish makes this adult glad to be in the new restaurant (which is across the street from Artie’s, a benefactor of Mama Chang’s if there’s any wait).
The menu brims with explanations for the crowds. Stubby duck rolls that are essentially Peking duck, presented in crisp spring rolls rather than with traditional pancakes. Fish balls with the texture of mousse and the delicate sweetness of flounder, served in a bowl brightened with goji berries on a raised stand — “grandma’s original,” according to the script. Slices of deep-fried lotus root garnished with chopped onion (and noise enough to attract the attention of my sound meter) are like the best potato chips: hard to stop at one.
Lydia says Mama Chang’s pulsing version of chow mein is meant to “repair the reputation” of the dish she enjoyed as a child — for breakfast — but which some of us first experienced as a meal from a can. Slippery wheat noodles combined with soft bits of chicken, chewy fermented black beans, scallions and chiles is wholly delicious. The Chinese version of beef jerky turns out to be soft smoky ropes of meat whose Sichuan peppercorns numb the tongue in the best way possible.
If there’s a better, more accessible Chinese experience in Northern Virginia right now, I have yet to make its acquaintance. Every plate I’ve tried tastes as if it were prepared just for its recipient, and the bonus is a wide-ranging, fairly priced wine list. Actually, another lure is the service. The waiters I have encountered know the menu as well as if they, too, had been raised on the cooking. When we order the roast duck, a server’s eyes light up. “The chef is from Guangzhou,” the sprawling port city northwest of Hong Kong, he says of a cook with a way with fowl. “His specialty is the duck.” The eventual entree finds velvety meat under mahogany skin and a light wash of sauce.
The only dish to carry over from another of the Changs’ restaurants is the popular scallion bubble cake, a golden blimp inflated with steam and, you should know, a creation of Lisa’s. The dry-fried cauliflower at Mama Chang comes with the same firepower as the dry-fried eggplant served at the Changs’ other establishments, including Q by Peter Chang, where Lisa works on weekends.
The dining room is airy and easy on the eyes, outfitted with blond wood tables, white tiles, a pop of greenery and beige banquettes beneath lengths of rope. Side rooms sport round tables capable of seating as many as 13 diners. The kitchen, which employs a dozen cooks, is visible behind a half-screen.
The primary chef may come as a surprise. “The secret is: my dad,” says his daughter. But make no mistake. Mama Chang is motherly at heart.
3251 Old Lee Highway, Fairfax. 703-268-5556. mamachangva.com. Family-style entrees $17-$25.