The motivation behind chef Peter Chang’s newest restaurant is pretty simple: It all comes down to a plate of pan-fried tofu and bean sprouts — a dish Peter’s mother made when he was a young boy growing up in Hubei, China.
“In his memory, nothing tastes better than that — from an emotional point of view, from a flavors point of view, from a memory point of view,” said Peter’s daughter Lydia Chang, who runs business development for the family’s restaurant group.
That’s why it was the first item on the menu at Peter’s new Fairfax, Virginia, outpost, Mama Chang.
Peter Chang has become somewhat of a household name in the D.C. area. With more than 10 restaurants throughout Maryland and Virginia, his Szechuan-style cooking has earned him rave reviews and a cult following (they call themselves Changians). But his latest restaurant pays homage to the behind-the-scenes influences in his culinary career: the women in his family and the meals they cook at home.
“People constantly ask: ‘Chef, what do you like to eat the most?’ And he always says, ‘Home-cooked meals,’” explained Lydia, who helped to translate Peter’s responses throughout the interview.
“This is actually what we have in China. Chinese food in America was misunderstood for a long time … we just want to show you what’s a proper meal.”
Unlike the modern plates and presentations the chef offers at his Bethesda restaurant, Q by Peter Chang, the focus at Mama Chang is on “nothing more but flavors and tastes.” Most of the recipes have been in the Chang family for generations, Lydia said.
Along with the pan-fried tofu from Peter’s mother is a soy-braised beef stew — a childhood favorite of Lydia’s — and green pepper pickled mustard pork.
Lisa Chang — Peter’s wife who is also a chef and “the genius behind Peter Chang restaurant group,” according to Lydia — said the suanla rice noodle with pickled vegetables, chili oil and vinegar is her No. 1. It’s also a meal Lydia remembers making with her mom when she had a day off and wanted to rest at home.
“And this is something that she can easily throw on with just simple ingredients,” Lydia said. “As simple as it sounds, and just with some pre-made rice noodles, she always nails it.”
Chinese friends and customers have even told Lydia that Lisa’s suanla rice noodles bring them to tears “because it reminds them so much of what they had growing up.”
The nearly 8,000-square-foot restaurant also features a curated wine program to pair with the often spicy dishes. And Changians fear not: Lisa’s famous scallion bubble pancakes are on the menu at Mama Chang.