Jane Stern: ‘Asian hawker fare’ is welcome in Westport’s restaurant scene

Photo of Jane Stern

I was cruising along the Post Road when a new restaurant caught my eye. It is Mama Chow and under the name of the restaurant are the intriguing words “Inspired by Asian hawker fare.”

“Asian Hawker” refers to the delicious street food found in Maylasia, Indonesia and Singapore. There are any number of far-flung gourmets and food writers (like the late Anthony Bourdain) who will swear that nothing in Asia can compare to what is made and served at these humble outdoor street kitchens.

There are standard dishes that if done well enough can make a chef’s reputation and translate into lines around the block when the wok is fired up. On the menu at Mama Chow is the high-profile Malaysian dish laksa, a pho-like spicy soup with thick wheat noodles and coconut milk. Mama Chow offers a classic laksa made from chicken, pork, eggs, tofu and crispy bean curd in a coconut curry broth. There is also a seafood laksa with shrimp, scallops and squid and a very good vegetarian laksa highlighting eggplant, okra, egg and tofu.

Another classic dish on the menu is abbreviated as KLM (like the airline) but it has nothing to do with aviation. It is short for Aka Non Loh Men, a melange of barbecue roast pork, pork wantons, baby bok choy and pickled serrano chilis. The $12 you spend at Mama Chow on these dishes are a lot easier on the wallet and one’s behind than a $12-million-hour plane ride to Malaysia.

I guess it would be fair to put this unique cuisine under the broad umbrella of Asian food, but once you have tasted it you will be struck how unlike any other familiar Asian cuisine it is.

Some of the pillars of this cuisine include a nut known as pandan, or “screw pine” which is the Asian equivalent of vanilla in Western cuisine. Pandan is sometimes flavored with star anise or garlic and is a popular seasoning for cooking. The sweet and savory taste of something called kecap manis is not something we run into often. This tongue twister functions as a substitute for of dark soy sauce with thick undercurrents of caramel, primarily used to color and season stewed dishes. At Mama Chow, one’s taste buds will perk up on the unique tastes of lemongrass, candlenuts (similar to a macadamia nut) tamarind, turmeric and ubiquitous small dried anchovies. My suggestion is to not read the ingredients (unless you have food allergies) but order and dip in. Your squeamishness will most likely disappear at first bite.

Another backbone of “street hawker cuisine” is the use of a paste-like pulp extracted from an exotic fruit pod called asap jawa. Reading all this exotica may make you head spin but it was not too long ago foodies were proud to know the difference between Hunan, Cantonese and Szechuan dishes. Three years ago, if I had heard Westport would be cutting edge I would have laughed. The culinary stakes have been raised and Mama Chow is a fun and easy way to introduce yourself to a world of new flavors.

Mama Chow has a delightfully informal dining room. It is cheerful and welcoming and makes it easy to not be put off by dishes you have never heard of before.

On my first visit here, I began my meal with tamarind chicken wings, saucy and spicy and still somewhat familiar looking as all chicken wings are. I had heard raves about the hot-oil dumplings and these lovely packages of pork, shrimp, chili oil and vinegar deserve their popularity. They are larger than the usual Asian pot stickers, and the oil is served in a cup on the side so you can vary the heat to your preference. Lighter and more refreshing are the crispy Vietnamese rolls with mint and fish sauce. They too are on the large side, let us say the size of a spring roll, but refreshing and unique.

As with Vietnamese restaurants, there are a goodly number of pho and udon dishes on the menu. Thinking back to how easily exotic cuisine quickly becomes familiar, to me pho, udon and ramen are practically as common as grilled-cheese sandwiches. Unlike my friend Mouni’s husband who is Vietnamese, I think it is fair to guess you are mispronouncing pho. Vietnamese is a tonal language which depends on the highs and lows of a word. As my friend demonstrated it is not pronounced “foe” or “fuh,” but “foooouuuuwwweeeaa,” or something to that yodeling effect. I just point to the menu.

Mama Chow has first-rate spicy miso ramen, made from pork belly, egg and pickled mustard greens. My favorite udon is the Yaki Udon Supreme, a brothless bowl of creamy gochujang, scallop, shrimp and calamari. Gochujang is a red chili paste that also contains glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, salt and sometimes sweeteners. It’s a thick, sticky condiment that’s spicy and very concentrated and pungent in flavor.

At Mama Chow I think the best pho is the Pho Deluxe, with slices of rare beef, brisket, bo vien (small beef meatballs), tripe and beef tendon. Again, if you are not adventurous don’t read the ingredients, just order it and enjoy. Mama Chow is the real deal. I am so proud our suburbs have a contender for exotic Maylasian Street Hawker cuisine and it is right here on the Post Road.

Restaurant columnist Jane Stern co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series.

Mama Chow

3381 Post Road, Southport