Chef Peter Chang is an institution in the region. The name conjures excitement, awe, and respect, and for good reason: the reality is that few chefs around here are cooking authentic Chinese food of such high quality. Mama Chang, his newest outpost in Fairfax, Virginia, focuses on the cuisine of the Sichuan and Hubei provinces, serving you elevated homestyle cooking. Think of it as one of the best family-style meals you’ll ever have, period.
The celebrated chef obtained near-legendary status in the early aughts, thanks to his culinary prowess and nomadic lifestyle. But unlike most contemporary chefs who pop up in kitchens around the country by choice, Chang’s constant movement was a matter of necessity: he left his post as chef to the Chinese Embassy and sought after a new life for himself and his family in the United States, something the People’s Republic of China was not too happy about.
As the story goes, Chang’s cooking was so extraordinary – so uniquely remarkable, even to the most minimally trained palate – that rumors of his cooking at different Chinese restaurants around the country were closely tracked on digital message boards by a growing number of fans, the self-proclaimed “Changians”. Arlington, Richmond, Williamsburg, Marietta, Knoxville, Charlottesville; Chang moved around a lot for over a decade, before shifting political tides made it safe for him to emerge from the shadows. Now his family owns a handful of restaurants on the East Coast, and the Changs occupy rarified air in a time when American diners are actively seeking to try authentic culinary experiences. People want to eat what the cooks in the back have been eating all along: give me the fish heads, the chicken livers, the pigs feet, the beef tongue – the good stuff.
Chef Peter Chang and his wife Lisa run the kitchen here, as they do in all of their restaurants, with the help of their daughter Lydia, who heads up business development for the restaurant group. The Chef and his wife came to greet us, and Lydia served as our host for the evening, walking us through each of the dishes and how they tied to her family’s history and nostalgia. Everything we ate that night was something we could expect to find in the Chang’s home kitchen – this place was decidedly not catering to the old notions of “Chinese” food we might have grown up with. But it’s fair to say that even General Tsao played his role in history – you’ve got to walk before you can run.
Mama Chang has been open for a few months now, slowly but surely drawing in a solid clientele. The restaurant itself is beautiful, with plenty of open spaces, natural light, and blonde wood tables, with the occasional greenery. The walls have a slightly more industrial edge, with ash-grey tiles stacked upon each other to form intricate wave patterns. A group of us were invited to to try their fall menu, with its focus on dishes that make the most of the harvest.
Highlights include the small lychee black pepper chicken – with bright and fragrant peppers that seem innocuous at first, but ultimately packed a punch. It was so good and so spicy; I couldn’t stop eating it, despite the risk of sandblasting my tastebuds. Braised pork belly with bok choy and tea eggs was another group favorite, a delicate combination of fatty, umami-forward flavors and crispy, gooey textures. Our group devoured it almost immediately. Lotus root pearls, blue crab meatballs, jade noodles with a whole steamed lobster and flounder – so much amazing flounder, cooked in pickled chilis – meant that there was always some phenomenal dish spun around on the lazy Susan, as our group of strangers (all food writers) made friendships over mouthfuls of food and swigs of Tsingtao. Mama Chang is the kind of place where you can expect to get to know someone.
Mama Chang is located at 3251 Old Lee Hwy Ste101, Fairfax, VA 22030.