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Mama Wong review: Szechuan cuisine brings spice to a suburban strip mall, all thanks to a pharma tycoon

With a former Han Dynasty chef manning the woks, Mama Wong is one of the best examples of regional Chinese cooking in the area, featuring not just Szechuan heat, but also fine Shanghai soup dumplings, Cantonese seafood, and Nanjing flavors, too.

Boiled Fish w/ in Chili Sauce at Mama Wong in Exton, Pa., on Thursday, July 11, 2019.
Boiled Fish w/ in Chili Sauce at Mama Wong in Exton, Pa., on Thursday, July 11, 2019.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

It turns out there is no one actually named Mama Wong at the restaurant called Mama Wong in Exton.

“No, no, I’m not Mama Wong!” says Christina Chen, the cheerful general manager whose energetic charm and passion for the culinary fireworks of her native Chengdu could easily be mistaken for that of an owner. “But... ,” she said, pointing proudly across the table to our young server, "I am a mother!”

Her reply was both literal and deliberately on brand for Mama Wong’s Szechuan comfort mission. Our waiter, in fact, was her son Alex Hoke, who spent much of his youth in China. So when Alex waxed poetic about the qualities of good dandan while mixing our noodles tableside — “you want the right textural snap, and just enough liquid in the bowl to keep the sauce moist without getting watery” — it was clear while he carefully turned the noodles over and over in the sauce, until each strand glistened with sesame-peanut chili paste, that he was also conjuring a genuine childhood memory: “I miss the pandas of Chengdu!”

Mama Wong lives! Not so much in person, though, than as a powerful evocation of a faraway home carried on the crimson flows of chili oil and lip-numbing “flower peppercorns" that brought so many dishes here to vivid life, from the intricately pleated dumplings to the delicate fish and cumin-crusted lamb, which is memorable enough in standard fashion, sliced thin, with sweet onion laces and chilies, but also very much worth the $10 off-menu upgrade to luxurious lamb chops if they have them.

Who, you may wonder, is looking for such an evocative slice of Chengdu at a seemingly generic strip mall in the middle of Chester County? My friend Jeff Towne, for one, a radio producer and proto-Philly food blogger whose obsessive Instagram adulation for Mama Wong’s menu finally persuaded me to make the trip. And I’m so glad I did.

Because Mama Wong chef Hongbin Luo, a veteran of Han Dynasty in both New York and Philadelphia, is also cooking for an international crowd that knows what it’s tasting. Co-owner Song Li, the man behind the Exton pharmaceutical firm Frontage Holdings, which recently went public on the Hong Kong exchange, opened this restaurant last fall with his own employees in mind. About 100 of his chemists, scientists, and pharmacists, he said, are Chinese: “Most of them don’t eat outside of the house frequently. So I wanted Mama Wong’s food to remind them of the food their mothers prepared.”

The fu qi fei pian, a cold starter of thin-sliced beef with frilly-edged ribbons of tripe (and sometimes tendon) bathed in an aurora of chili oil, was fantastic. It was not merely spicy but layered with flavors, the textures delicate enough to snap easily between the teeth, and the anise whiff of Szechuan peppercorns spiraling on the crunch of peanuts, spring onions, and a cilantro finish.

Likewise, Mama Wong’s mapo tofu is one of the region’s best, a wide crock brimming with cubes of bean curd as soft as custard. They bobbed in orange gravy sparked by fermented black beans, savory pork crumbles, and so much peppercorn ground fresh over top that it radiated a nose-tickling haze when it landed on the table.

Mama Wong’s existence is a happy byproduct of the same global tech migration to exurbia that has, in similar fashion, also made Chester County home to some of the region’s best South Indian restaurants. The Chinese community is not yet quite as large, even though the original Han Dynasty is just a few miles away (and still going strong). And there are other authentic Chinese destinations in the western suburbs, like Ping Pong and Margaret Kuo’s in Wayne, plus venerable Pin Wei in King of Prussia. But considering that only 30 percent of its customers are Chinese, Li believes the restaurant must appeal to a broader American audience to survive. So there have been some mild compromises — beginning with the name.

You might actually turn a few heads if you went to this restaurant looking for Mama Wang, given that Li and each of this three male partners coincidentally married women named Wang – Amy, Dongmei, Wei Huang, and Lei – who are unrelated but share one of the most common surnames in China. They are are all co-owners with their spouses, as well. Nonetheless, "the partners thought Wong was a better spelling for an American audience,” Chen said, without explaining further.

The menu makes a few overtures to Americanized favorites, as well, like beef with broccoli and the inevitable General Tso’s chicken. But chef Luo also happens to make one of the best General Tso’s around, frying his chicken fresh to a greaseless crisp, then glazing the nuggets in a dark sauce that has more tang and spice than the typically treacly syrup. There is wonton soup, too, but it’s served in the seafood-centric Shanghai style, with seaweed and thin-skinned dumplings filled with shrimp.

If I’m eating soup at Mama Wong’s, though, I’d head straight for the tureen of flounder fillets in a pale broth that’s tart and spicy with chilies and pickled cabbage. It’s light but amazingly flavorful. A popular alternative is made with beef, whose thin-sliced pads crinkle from the heat over crunchy enoki mushrooms in a clear broth that showcases a wicked sourness from pickled vegetables — a flavor often overlooked as one of the signatures of Szechuan cooking.

Mama Wong’s vast menu also deftly showcases some other regional cuisines — especially the soup dumplings from Shanghai, the beggar’s purses that harbor hot broth around nuggets of minced pork. If you eat them correctly, nipping the top side with your teeth and giving a hearty slurp, you can experience the xiao long bao in its multiple flavor phases: the pure gush of its natural meaty savor; then rehydrated with a tart splash of dark vinegar braced with ginger. They’re no longer quite the novelty they once were, but these are well-made, with multiple tight pleats around the neck that showcase a dough that’s delicate and durable enough not to burst prematurely.

Cantonese cooking is well-represented here, too, in the crystal dumplings filled with shrimp and grated white radish, and also the plump striped bass that’s steamed beneath shaved scallions and ginger with a splash of light soy sauce.

Mama Wong also makes its own Peking duck, though I found the meat drier than those of my favorite duck specialists in Chinatown. The best part was the duck’s second course, made from the chopped-up carcass, which can be had as soup (a good choice) or a meat-picker’s delight when sauteed in spicy Szechuan style. Next time I’ll try the hard-to-find Nanjing-style salty duck. But it may be a struggle to pass up the deeply smoked Szechuan duck, whose soft brown skin was meltingly rich, with moist meat that was reminiscent of a campfire.

This menu’s focus clearly remains with those Szechuan flavors, which, as Li noted, are popular across China now, too. And Luo’s spicy chicken wings are a must-order starter, because their dry-pepper fried crusts reveal the kind of complex flavors a master chef can coax out of a blend of multiple peppers and spices. They’re not just hot. They’re perfumy, garlicky, and magnetic, leaving a hum across the lips that simply demands you strip the bones clean.

But Luo’s food also reminds one that Szechuan cuisine isn’t solely about chili spice so much as big, bold flavors. The double-cooked pork belly is one non-spicy dish that proves the point, its pale ribbons of well-rendered pork elevated by the crunch of diamond-cut leeks that cling fast to the tender meat, sparked by umami bursts of sweet black beans. The sesame-speckled nubs of tender spare ribs glossed in sweet-and-sour sauce also conquered my hesitations with a deep mahogany glaze tinted by dark vinegar and soy that was decidedly more tart than sweet.

The ribs were an irresistible respite from the heat. But then it was back into the cauldron of fire for one of my menu favorites, the flounder fillets “boiled in chili sauce.”

The dish glows with such an ominous red hue, it looks as if you’re fishing from the mouth of a volcano. But once again, Luo’s finesse brought surprises. The chili sauce was vividly fragrant, but not nearly as blazing as I expected at first bite. There was a round richness to the broth, even an undertow of sweetness that drew me deeper. But then, as the delicately flaky fillets cracked open between my teeth, the other aromatics flickered on. The peppercorn’s hum. The fresh plumes of cilantro. The lingering, roasty warmth of dried peppers.

And then came the sneaky heat, which went from “pilot” to “ignite” as I felt my hair follicles begin to tingle with pleasure. It was the very real presence of Mama Wong whispering, “You’re welcome.”