Wet Noodles

I f the talking heads on the Food Network can be trusted, we eat with our eyes. And if that’s the case, then your meal at Mecha Noodle Bar begins the moment you walk in the door. The space on Crown Street is decorated with a striking display of wood two-bys—interlocked on the concrete walls and reaching down from the ceiling at staggered lengths. The effect is hip and dynamic and, if you’re hungry enough, suggestive of being at the bottom of a big bowl of noodles.

The decor has another meaning according to Daryl Wells, the general manager or, as it says on his business cards, Elm City Sensei. “The idea around pho and ramen is that they’re the everyday work person’s food,” he says—though, at Mecha, dishes are conceived in an elevated manner, with some exciting culinary notions like shrimp paté and almond aioli. “You can eat it every day,” Wells says. “You can come in, slam a bowl in under seven minutes and get on with your day.”

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At Mecha, which also has a full bar, you probably won’t get in and out in seven minutes. But it is fast, a well-oiled machine even when packed, employing a model first honed in its Fairfield and South Norwalk storefronts. Started by Tony Pham and Richard Reyes, two best friends and restaurant brats—kids who grew up in food service—the menu serves up southeast Asian comfort food. Don’t call it fusion, though. “‘Fusion’ is like a dirty word,” Wells says. “Personally, I think ‘fusion’ cheapens the different cultures the food comes from… People tend to clump all the southeast Asian cultures into one ‘fusion’ thing, but then you never really know where things comes from.”

Pho is Vietnamese and ramen is Japanese, and the menu makes a point of maintaining the “cultural respect” Wells talks about. At Mecha, pho and ramen get their own headings, with clearly delineated flavor profiles. The pho, which is Wells’s favorite category and which he credits with curing the cold that dogged him when he first started working there, is a little simpler—a beef and chicken broth with noodles and a roster of add-ons that are mostly animal: tripe, marrow oil, tendon and short ribs are all options. The ramen is more bombastic. According to the menu, it marries the five traditional elements: noodles, tare (a flavor deepener, like red or white miso), stock, toppings and aromatic oils.

I had the Spicy Miso Ramen with added corn, where noodles, miso, pork belly, mushrooms and chili oil mingled in a seemingly bottomless bowl ($13). Spicy indeed, plus warm and comforting, the dish was packed with flavor. The pork belly was sweet and fatty, the corn, scallions and mushrooms bright and fresh and the noodles plentiful. If, however, the initial portion leaves you wanting more, you may want to take advantage of Mecha’s Kae-Dama protocol—a $2 serving of fresh noodles for whatever broth you have left.

I also tried the Firecracker Chicken Wings ($7) and the Red Oil Dumplings ($8). The wings were lightly fried and well-spiced—a chic and crispy update on the drab, often gloopy game-day staple. The dumplings, filled with pork and shrimp, were covered in crunchy fried onions and floated in a pool of red sauce. Plump and toothsome, they were excellent vehicles for the sauce, which was the star of the show. Salty, sweet, spicy and flecked with peppers, it should came bottled.

Wells says one of Mecha’s strengths is its appeal to a broad range of eaters. There’s the workaday lunch crowd looking for a fast noodle fix and the trendy dinner crowd looking for a lively foodie experience. But Wells says the food can also serve as a “piece of home” for transplants from that part of the world, like many Yale students, or an updated take on a childhood staple for people like himself, who grew up on instant ramen.

Of course, even though it’s fast, Mecha’s fresh, gourmet version isn’t instant, starting with the fact that it makes you want to take your time.

Mecha Noodle Bar
201 Crown St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 11:30am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-11pm, Sun 11:30am-9pm
(203) 691-9671

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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