If you ask most Americans what they think about when they hear the word “ramen,” they’ll tell you about some point in their lives when they couldn’t afford to eat anything besides the cheap dehydrated brick of noodles ubiquitous with the name. But instant ramen bears little in common with authentic ramen from Japan.
Ramen in Japan is similar to how we view chicken soup in the U.S.: It’s a comfort food. It’s something that everybody eats, and that can be found everywhere. And it’s something best served fresh (though even in Japan they might settle for the instant noodles from time to time).
Luckily, America is beginning to see authentic ramen served at restaurants. An example of one such restaurant in Connecticut is Mecha Noodle Bar, which has restaurants in Fairfield, South Norwalk, and New Haven.
The word “Mecha” means “mom and pop” in Vietnamese, which speaks to the comfort food aspect of the dishes that the restaurant serves. The meals that they serve are a fusion of various types of Asian cuisine: Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, and Korean.
Their tagline (“Slurping Encouraged”) stems from Japanese dining etiquette, where slurping noodles shows the cook how much you are enjoying the dish. Beyond this, there is actually science that shows that slurping noodles adds air to your mouthful, actually enhancing the flavor of the meal (much how wine connoisseurs will slurp on wine). So when visiting, forget everything that your mother taught you and slurp away!
Though ramen is what they are perhaps best known for (more on that below), they also serve a variety of other Asian delicacies such as steamed baos (a sort of bun stuffed with delicious goodies); various salads, dumplings, and other appetizers; and a selection of Asian-inspired teas and cocktails.
But now for the main course: The noodles! You can choose from two kinds of noodle dishes at Mecha—pho and ramen. Pho is of Vietnamese origin and consists of a beef-and-chicken broth seasoned heavily with cilantro and scallions and served with rice noodles. Ramen is of Japanese origin and typically does without the cilantro. Ramen broth is dependent on the dish you choose (and does have a vegetarian option!), and the noodles are typically made from wheat (though, if you’ve got a gluten allergy, you should be able to swap the rice noodles in without problem).
I haven’t ordered the pho, but I tasted it when a friend ordered it and thought it was good. My friend thought that it tasted “flowery.” I think that this is from the cilantro and other herbs used in the dish; if you like cilantro and most other herbs, you should enjoy the pho, but if you don’t then you may want to stay away.
Of the ramen, I’ve tried the Paitan Ramen, which is made with chicken stock, chicken, black garlic, nori (seaweed), scallion, menma (bamboo shoots), and tamago (a soft-boiled egg). The experience was out of this world. I don’t like seaweed, so I regularly ask that they leave it out (you can do this with any of the toppings). My first time, I was a little turned off by the idea of the egg—egg doesn’t belong in soup!—but I tried it anyway and was pleasantly surprised. It adds a richness to the dish and blends extremely well with the flavors.
In addition to what normally comes with the dish, you can ask for additional add-ons, which range from an extra egg to more bamboo shoots, charred corn, mushroom, and more. I highly recommend adding the chili oil. It’s got a little heat to it, but beyond that it adds a smoky flavor that elevates the dish. (It’s served in a small dish, so if you’re worried about it being too hot, don’t worry: You can add as much or as little as you want to your own bowl.)
This is a unique add-on on the menu, but it really isn’t an add-on at all. If you’re hungry when you go, tell your server that you would like to add the “Kae-dama” option when you are placing your order. This gives you the ability to ask for as many refills of noodles as you want. It costs $2 regardless of how many noodle refills you get. But make sure you reserve some broth for your noodles: You won’t get any extra broth with the extra noodles.
When I’ve gone, I’ve typically never been satisfied with a single bowl (I eat a lot) so I always get the Kae-dama. Depending on how hungry I am, I can eat between 2 and 3 servings of noodles. That might seem like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the “Kae-dama Champions” who eat upwards of 12 or more bowls of noodles at a time. Their names (and records) can be found on the wall.
Where: Mecha Noodle Bar has 3 locations: 1215 Post Road in Fairfield, 11 Washington Street in South Norwalk, and 201 Crown Street in New Haven.
When: Hours are dependent on which location you attend. In Fairfield they are open Monday through Saturday from 11:30am to 10pm and Sunday from 11:30am to 9pm. In South Norwalk and New Haven they are open Monday through Thursday from 11:30am to 10pm, Friday and Saturday from 11:30am to 11pm, and Sunday from 11:30am to 9pm.
Cost: Varies depending on your meal. Most ramen is $12 without any add-ons, and pho ranges from $11 to $15.