Mama Chang: A Religious Experience

As my husband heads to synagogue, which he does every Saturday morning, I sit at my kitchen table with my own version of worship. I take a deep breath and think back on my week. What did I accomplish at work? What did I read, listen to, or watch that has made an impact on me?  And most importantly, where did I dine and what stood out in my food-filled week?  I pray that I can remember what I ate, or at the very least that I took good photos. I close my eyes and indulge in a moment of silence.

I smile broadly, as I recall a recent revelatory meal at Mama Chang in Fairfax, Virginia.  This is the latest restaurant from Peter Chang, the Chinese chef worshipped by minions, who over the years have become known as Changians.

The term was coined in 2005 because the chef would cook in a restaurant where he would attract attention and accolades for his talent, and then depart suddenly. His food is distinctive, and his fans so devout that they would track him down in pursuit of his dishes. Inevitably he would disappear again.  It was a mystery at the time, but is now known that the swift disappearances were the result of immigration issues with his native country.

The phenomenon was covered in the New Yorker in a story by Calvin Trillin and by many others including Todd Kliman, former restaurant critic for Washingtonian, who deemed him “the perfect chef.” I discover his cooking in 2011, when my husband and I make a stop at Peter Chang’s China Grill in Charlottesville, Virginia. An introduction to Chang’s dry fried eggplant, scallion bubble pancakes, ma po tofu, and “house special” fish makes me a devotee.

Immigration issues have been resolved, and Peter Chang now owns seven restaurants, mostly in Virginia and one in Rockville, as well as two flagship restaurants: Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda and the new Mama Chang.

Mama Chang is a standout, with homestyle Chinese cuisine that serves as a tribute to the women in the family. This includes his wife Lisa, who is an accomplished chef in her own right. The scallion bubble pancake is actually her creation. Lisa is a certified pastry chef and this is where she now focuses some of her attention.  

Mama Chang Chefs Peter and Lisa Chang
Mama Chang Chefs Peter and Lisa Chang

Many of the dishes at Mama Chang are inspired by Peter’s mother, Ronger Wang who was a farmer in Hubei, China where she still resides. And rounding out the trio of women for whom Mama Chang honors, is Peter and Lisa’s daughter Lydia. Lydia presides over business development for the Chang restaurant empire, which continues to expand.

My husband is at synagogue reciting L’dor V’dor, which means from generation to generation, as I contemplate a restaurant that beautifully exemplifies this concept. 

Peter Chang is renowned for his hot and numbing Sichuan cuisine, but it takes a backseat at Mama Chang.  This restaurant is about what the family loved to eat at home, and Hubei food has a focus on fish and fresh vegetables. Jalapenos, green chilis, dried hot pepper, and black pepper take the place of those heat up the food.

My dinner at Mama Chang serves as a showcase for some new fall dishes. Peter explains through Lydia that as the weather cools, he turns up the heat on spices. In another nod to the weather, the additions to the menu include a variety of comforting soups and stews.

One of Lydia’s favorite dishes from childhood is tomato egg scramble with baby shrimp and scallions. It’s the uplifting dish we all wish we had growing up. Thanks to Mama Chang, we too can partake in this comforting medley of ingredients.

Mama Chang tomato egg scramble
Mama Chang tomato egg scramble

Leaning into the fall with soulful flavors and a hearty bent are braised pork belly with tea eggs, meatball casserole with mushrooms and bok choy, and in a welcome nod to a sacred local ingredient- blue crab meatballs.

Mama Chang meatball casserole
Mama Chang meatball casserole

Top of the list on the heat-meter is pan-seared green chili pepper with beef and potato. This dish has bite and a lingering burn. It takes my voice away for a moment, but I dive right back in because the silken beef calls to me and even the heat is hard to resist. Is this dish the answer to my prayers?  When it comes to food, why yes, it is.

Jade noodles with whole lobster evokes a chorus of OMG from my dining companions. There may be nothing quite as tantalizing as a steaming whole lobster bathing in a fragrant broth. Heavenly.

Mama Chang jade noodles with whole lobster
Mama Chang jade noodles with whole lobster

One of my dining companions deems Peter Chang the “fish whisperer.” When he and Lisa collaborate on fish at Mama Chang, it’s really something to behold. One example is the rousing pickled chili flounder fish pot with bird’s eye chili, vermicelli, and tofu. The pickled chili adds oomph to this sumptuous stew.

Mama Chang pickled chili flounder fish pot
Mama Chang pickled chili flounder fish pot

I have long admired Peter Chang’s feisty dry fried eggplant.  The vegetable is deep fried and seasoned generously with chili powder, hot paprika, and cilantro. At Mama Chang the treatment is applied to cauliflower, which is lighter and crisper than the original.

Another delicacy unique to Mama Chang is salt and pepper crispy lotus root sandwich stuffed with ground pork. This snaps, crackles, and pops with flavor.

Mama-Chang-cauliflower-and-lotus-root-sandwiches.
Mama-Chang-cauliflower-and-lotus-root-sandwiches.

Lisa Chang prepares beautiful moon cakes, a Chinese pastry made with egg yolks and lotus seed paste. These are typically eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival as a conclusion to the meal.

Mama Chang moon cakes
Mama Chang moon cakes

Her creations are supplemented by offerings from award-winning pastry chef Pichet Ong, who conjures up desserts that are both sweet and savory. Green tea cheesecake and dark chocolate sesame chocolate cake end a Mama Chang meal on a perfect note.

Mama Chang dark chocolate sesame chocolate cak
Mama Chang dark chocolate sesame chocolate cake

We should count our blessings that the Changs have offered us a taste of the recipes they have been keeping to themselves all these years. So to Mama Chang, let us say amen.

Mama Chang, 3251 Old Lee Hwy, Fairfax, VA 

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Q by Peter Chang: Heat Wave

Peter Chang: Can the Rockville Restaurant Live Up to Its Moniker

Charlottesville: Found- Peter Chang’s China Grill (2011)

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