Sometimes, menus can be intimidating. It took me a while to try sushi for the first time, not because I was afraid of raw fish, but because I had no idea what anything unfamiliar was.
About two decades ago, when I finally ventured out to Sakura in Westport, I was initially dumbfounded. Hamachi? Tomago? Hand roll or sashimi? I had no idea what anything meant. Furthermore, I had no idea how much to order. What did it mean that each piece was $3? Do I order one or ten? I needed a crash course in the art of Japanese menus.
Fortunately, I got the hang of things quickly. I'm thankful I didn't let my ignorance stop me from trying something new, otherwise I never would never have known the gastronomic joy of a sweet, barbecue-y piece of unagi or the addictive combination of sticky rice and spicy tuna wrapped up in a cone of seaweed. Now, going for sushi is pretty much a weekly ritual for my family.
I had to keep all that in mind when Mecha recently opened in the Brick Walk shopping complex in downtown Fairfield. It seems like the area has become a vast sea of Italian restaurants and burger joints, so it was refreshing to see the sign for something completely different. There was just one thing, though. I'd never been to a noodle bar and, frankly, I was nervous.
The restaurant took over the space that was formerly occupied by Liquid Lunch. I wasn't sure how such a tiny space would translate into a sit-down restaurant, but magic was done here. Using simple two-by-fours and textured wall paper, the interior is clean and zen-like.
Owner Tony Pham sat down with me and explained the menu, which changes with the seasons and availability. It's divided into sections: snacks, raw bar, ramen, pho, family meal and sweets. Snacks include things like salads with kale or grilled pork, eggrolls filled with ground pork and corn dumplings served with Thai basil butter.
That's easy enough, but it was the noodle dishes that had me a little confused. "Ramen is Japanese and pho is Vietnamese," explained Pham.
He said that, unfortunately, most people know ramen as the instant noodle packs that college students subsist on. "Ramen is all about the toppings," he said. "It's such soul food." Ramen noodles are made from wheat, and the broth is almost gravy-like. At Mecha, they use bones from Westport's Craft Butchery to make their stock. Toppings include things like wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, roasted pork and chicken.
Pho, on the other hand, uses rice noodles that are more delicate and thinner than ramen. The soupy noodles include things like rare beef, seafood and cilantro.
Once you decide on the noodles, it's time to eat. A sign in the front window says, "Slurping encouraged."\
Mecha's mission: "We hope people grab our concept of comfort food and put the walls down and get intimate with the bowl of noodles and hot broth," Pham said. He demonstrated how to hold the bowl with one hand and a spoon with the other. "You use two hands to eat," he said. "Don't be afraid to slurp and get messy."
For Pham, the restaurant is a way to spread his native culture. "I do this for my family," he said. In fact, "Mecha" means "mom and pop" in Vietnamese.
Although the Mecha menu is limited, it is tailored to a range of eating agendas. The restaurant can accommodate people on a gluten-free diet, because the pho noodles are made from rice and are cooked separately from the ramen noodles. The tofu they use is made in Connecticut and is GMO-free, and the noodles are sourced from Sun Noodle, an artisan noodle company. The beer list includes drafts like Brooklyn Summer Ale and Dogfish Raison D'etre, and they also offer unique cocktails, wines and sakes.
But for Pham, it's not just about the food. "It's awesome to retain our culture," he said.
"The best part for me is to see families slurping noodles," he said. "I like it when they start them young. Then I've achieved what I want."
Patti Woods is a freelance writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mecha noodle bar
1215 Post Road (Brick Walk shopping complex), 1215 Post Road, Fairfield
Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Information: 203-292-8222 or http://www.mechanoodlebar.com