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Mecha Noodle Bar: Complex Comfort Food In A Bowl

Forget everything you thought you knew about ramen.

At Mecha Noodle Bar, those dry, compressed noodles and foil seasoning packets from your college days are replaced by intricate, savory creations. Authentic bowls of Japanese ramen are filled with fresh noodles, bathed in rich bone broth boiled and simmered for as long as 24 hours, then finished with complex flavors: earthy mushrooms, umami-packed miso, unctuous slabs of roast pork, toasted seaweed, swirls of aromatic chili oil.

Great ramen can't be accomplished with shortcuts, says Mecha's Juan Reyes, who oversees operations at the group's three restaurants. "Not if you want to do it right."

The latest Mecha, which opened in New Haven in late September, joins its sister locations in southern Connecticut. The casual restaurant, with a menu of Southeast Asian comfort foods ranging from ranging from bao, dumplings and wings to pho and ramen, first debuted in Fairfield's Brick Walk retail development in 2013, followed by a South Norwalk outpost in late 2015.

Founders Tony Pham and Richard Reyes (Juan's brother) chose the name Mecha as a blend of the Vietnamese terms "Mẹ" and "Cha," or "mom" and "pop." The business partners have decades of restaurant experience between them, with roots in Danbury: Pham's family owns and operates Pho Vietnam there, and the Reyes brothers, whose family opened Amigo's Deli and Mina's Carne in the Hat City, launched Mezón Tapas Bar and Restaurant on Mill Plain Road in 2011.

"We are American-Vietnamese-Japanese-Thai-Chinese-Korean-New England-Momofuku-Totto-and-Ippudo-inspired," the Mecha website reads, honoring its wide range of geographic and cultural influences, including three internationally acclaimed destinations for ramen and Asian cuisine.

For their third Mecha, the partners looked north to the college town, taking a storefront on Crown Street formerly occupied by the bar Lazy Lizard. They sought to bring the restaurant's fun, upbeat vibe and laid-back service to an audience appreciative of culinary trends, introducing its trademark funky design with long communal tables and staggered two-by-fours hanging vertically from the ceiling.

"We don't try to take ourselves too seriously," Juan Reyes says. That mindset goes right down to the staff business cards with quirky titles: he's "Master of Disaster," his brother is "Chief Noodle Eater" and Pham is "Troublemaker." New Haven's general manager Daryl Wells is "Elm City Sensei."

The lively scene on a recent Friday afternoon reflected Mecha's efforts, as tables of diners sipped cocktails and slurped noodles to a soundtrack of 1990s hip-hop. Slurping is encouraged, by the way.

"If [the soup] is good enough, pick it up and sip it out of the bowl," Wells says. "That's the highest honor that we can ask for; if the bowl's so good, you want to bring it to your face."

Mecha's ramen options ($12 to $13) include a classic pork tonkotsu, with broth simmered for about 24 hours and loaded with chashu pork and spicy sprouts. Paiten chicken has a chicken-broth base made with 12 hours' simmer time, with black garlic, nori, soft egg and menma (bamboo shoots.) A spicy miso version is fiery with chili oil, with charred corn as a suggested add-on, and a vegetarian option features white miso, curry, tofu and seasonal vegetables. Ask for kae-dama once you've finished your first serving of noodles, and you'll get a second portion for $2.

Vietnamese pho ($11 to $14) is Mecha's other soup specialty, with a base of beef and chicken bone broth featuring rice noodles, cilantro, scallion and onion. Pho tai, with slices of rare beef, and pho ga, with chicken, are the best-sellers, Juan Reyes says. Add-ons like tripe, tendon, marrow oil, shrimp, meatballs and tofu are $1 to $3 apiece.

Diners also love the bao ($7 to $10): pillowy steamed buns filled with pork belly, seared shrimp cake or shiitake mushroom and topped with hoisin sauce, pickles or kewpie mayonnaise. The best-selling KFC (Korean fried chicken) buns are enhanced with gochujang, pickled carrots and daikon.

Other small plate favorites ($6 to $14) include housemade pork and shrimp dumplings spiced with togarashi chili oil and Sichuan vinegar; roasted mushroom dumplings with miso brown butter and arugula; Saigon egg rolls in a lettuce wrap with ground pork and mint; banh mi sandwiches with fried shrimp and cauliflower; herbed edamame with garlic confit, rosemary, sage and sea salt.

Mecha's team prides itself on its beverage program, with freshly brewed bubble teas (often spiked with mezcal, tequila, pisco or bourbon), sake and wine on draft and a collection of Asian whiskeys. Unique cocktails feature citrus flavors paired with Japanese shochu and takes on tiki-style libations with high-end rums.

"We want our cocktails to be really interesting and awesome and have a lot of flavor, but [also] to pair well with our bowls," Wells said.

"It's a stiff drink, with a great-tasting bowl, in a high-energy, fun, communal environment," Juan Reyes says. "It's all about family and culture. ... That bowl — you can tell when you take your first sip of tonkotsu or pho, that there's a lot of love that went into it."

Mecha Noodle Bar, 201 Crown St., New Haven, is open Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Happy hour runs from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays with specials on bao, ramen and cocktails. 203-691-9671 and mechanoodlebar.com.

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