MY SLURPY SIGNATURE DISH
Ramen Shops in Japan are as plentiful as hamburger joints over here. Every street boasts a shop. Yet none are exactly alike, mainly because each is distinguished by the owner’s unique signature dish, his personal autograph. In that tradition, Tony Pham has created his own signature dish for Mecha Noodle Bar: a unique interpretation of traditional Miso Ramen. Here’s the story behind it.
Tony likes to play with contrasts. And not just the culinary kind.
Case in point. Before trying his signature dish, Miso Ramen, take a look overhead at his futuristic Mecha Noodle Bar. Dangling from the ceiling, an arsenal of over three hundred vertical 2x4’s seem to be aimed directly at every table in the room. Alien, threatening.
Now try Pham’s dramatic interpretation of a classical Ramen. No, don’t taste it, slurp it. Breath in its steamy aromatic bouquet. Savor the deep, contrasting flavors: mushrooms and miso redolent of the earth, noodles that invoke wheat fields, a succulent pork belly that also warms and welcomes, counterpointed by the lively spice and heat of scallion and chili oil. It’s Japanese comfort food,a perfect contrast after a playful scare.
“We want our guests to feel like they are family,” Tony smiles. “So maybe the beams frighten them a little at first, but then we let the Ramen give them a big hug.”
Look overhead again. Those threatening weapons have morphed into comforting noodle strips.
“Ramen is like those 2x4’s,” Tony adds. “It all may look simple, but that simplicity hides a deeper complexity.”
Three basic components make up every Ramen: broth, noodle, and toppings. But the math, and art turn exponential when a gifted chef tries to marry disparate Asian flavors and textures into a unified dish. Over thirty ingredients compose the symphony that is Mecha’s Miso Ramen. Indeed it took Tony over a month to develop his signature dish, starting with riffs on traditional recipes, making endless adjustments, tasting with friends, family, and staff, and consulting vendors and peers, such as David Chang of the Momofuku empire, where the Ramen Revolution in America largely began.
In fact, Tony’s decision to create Mecha’s unique Miso Ramen was born out of customer demand for a Tonkotsu (pork) dish popular in the City, at restaurants like Momofuku Noodle. Although a traditional Tonkotsu is served with a pork broth, Tony decided to experiment with his own killer chicken stock, which had been drawing raves from customers and critics. Created from scratch, the broth is made from hormone-free chicken bones supplied by Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Westport, and gently simmered for 18 hours. Pham just didn’t have the dedicated burner space to cook another broth for over 2/3 of a day.
Realizing his new broth would need extra vibrancy, Tony incorporated a spicy ryu sauce of red miso and beans into the soup. The result was spectacular. Sharing the same base broth, his chicken and pork ramens were now siblings. That probably appealed to Tony’s love of family.
Pham decided the pork would play center stage as a topping. So that the meat wouldn’t be lost in the big soup, he needed to play some flavor games. Tony began with a lean Canadian pork belly, and then upped its flavor stakes. He rolled the bellies into cylinders, which he tied with string and then cured for two and a half hours in a marinade of soy, anise and garlic. Pham then chilled the meat so he could cleanly it into clena circular slices. After sprinkling on both salt and sugar, he sautéed the meat and then added a dramatic final touch. Deploying a culinary blow torch, the chef deepened the crust, carmelization and color by direct fire. The gleaming pork was now a visual and flavor standout, more than holding its own with the soup and sauces.
To complete the marriage, Tony needed a noodle with clingability to carry the smooth, hearty broth, and chewabilty to complement the pork and sauces. After consultation with the famed Sun Noodle Brand experts in New Jersey, he chose a Tokoyo Straight noodle, customized for his signature dish. The strips were sticky and chewy, with a firm texture that “bounced” off the toppings and soup. Like the best fresh pasta from Arthur Avenue, this Japanese noodle is submerged in boiling water for about a minute and served al dente.
To provide one more textural contrast, Pham decided to scatter crunchy Wood Ear mushrooms over the meat and sauce, a perfect accent to the soft noodles, juicy pork, and smooth broth.
When served, the steaming dish is a banquet to the senses, warm, aromatic, flavorful, and visually spectacular. An unadorned white bowl offsets the dazzling hues it holds: the rustic browns and reds of the torched pork belly, the deep greens of the scallions, the dark forest black of the mushroom studding the bright sunny noodles and milky white broth. The dish becomes a kaleidoscope of colors shapes and aromas.
When slurped, the contrasting flavors, textures, and tastes blend perfectly, their bouquet suffusing the nose and their contrapuntal flavors surprising the palate. With all your senses at play, the dish actually creates a warm, emotional experience.
Tony Pham’s Miso Ramen eloquently expresses his personal signature: a heartfelt hug from family.
The Miso Ramen is priced at 12.00 “ Kae-Dama,” an extra serving of noodles, is available for an additional 2 dollars (be sure to reserve some broth)
Photo courtesy of Fairfield Citizen
American born to Vietnamese immigrants, Tony Pham has received no formal culinary training. At age 15 he apprenticed in the kitchen of Pho Vietnam in Danbury, “learning in the trenches. “ Five years later, he and his mother bought the restaurant and under his family’s stewardship, PV earned critical raves and a devoted following. Last spring, Pham opened Mecha Noodle Bar in Fairfield, introducing a New York quality Ramen as well as Pho experience to Fairfield. He chose the city because of its young college population, who are drawn to a Ramen meal, which is inexpensive, fast and fun. Pham understands the tastes of that demo. Just 27 years old, Tony is one of region’s youngest restaurateurs.
MECHA NOODLE BAR. 1215 POST ROAD. FAIRFIELD. (203) 292-8222, mechanoodlebar.com