The menu at Mama Asian Noodle Bar in the Coconut Creek Promenade doesn't stop at noodles. In fact, the list of Thai-, Chinese-, Japanese-, and Vietnamese-inspired dishes is so extensive that it can be difficult to decide what to order.
A recent visit proved as much. I had brought my own mother along with me to sample Mama. But as it turned out, she was having trouble making sense of it all. "There's just so much here," she said, glancing over the five-page menu with a glassy look in her eye. "It's a little overwhelming."
Mom isn't the most adventurous eater out there, mind you. She doesn't like eating anything that too closely resembles the animal it came from. But what she does go crazy for is good Thai food. The freshness of the flavors — all the lemongrass and basil and sweet chili sauces — really resonates with her soul.
But tonight, she was stumped. Even our waitress, who tried so hard to be conciliatory, didn't seem to be able to help much. At each suggestion, Mom would wrinkle her nose and find something to harp on. "Stir-fried chicken and vegetables, that sounds good," she'd say. "Oh wait, there's oyster sauce in there. What's oyster sauce?" If she finally decided on something, she'd fumble over her choices and revisit them over and over. "Maybe I'll get the pad Thai. John, do you mind if I get the pad Thai? On second thought, maybe I'll get the Ladna chicken. Is that any good?"
And on and on it went.
I really can't blame Mama for my mom's fickleness. As a matter of fact, what had initially attracted me to the 5-month-old restaurant was the diversity of its pan-Asian menu. There are plenty of dishes at Mama that you won't find in your typical Thai or Japanese restaurant. Some, liked grilled pork noodle (called "bun thit" in most authentic Vietnamese restaurants) or beef noodle soup (AKA pho), even seem to be named with the Promenade's largely Anglo clientele in mind.
We didn't know it at the time, but Mama is actually the third restaurant from Mike and Lisa Ponluang, two mainstays in the South Florida Thai food scene. For 15 years, the couple ran Thai Pepper in Coral Springs, a gem of a restaurant hidden away in a quiet strip mall. Fans of the place drove in from all over Broward County to try Mike Ponluang's take on modern Thai. He had a flair for combining bold, authentic flavors with modern technique — when he'd marry sea bass with spicy red curry or elegantly pair crispy duck breast with tamarind sauce, people would just about coo aloud at their tables. Thai Pepper was also my folks' go-to Thai joint. When it closed in 2006, they were inconsolable. Unbeknown to my parents, the Ponluangs went on to open Coco Asian Bistro in Fort Lauderdale later that year, a place equally well-known for its inventive take on modern Thai and for its sophisticated setting.
Mama, as it were, is the Ponluangs' more casual extension of Coco. It mirrors their Fort Lauderdale restaurant, from the meticulous décor on down to the distinct appetizers. Case in point, Ponluang's famous spring rolls, a dish he's been making since he opened Thai Pepper in 1991 ($7). Here, ground chicken and shiitake mushrooms are fashioned into a sort of sausage, then wrapped in rice paper and pan-fried until crisp and golden. From the moment my parents tried these, they knew something was up. "This tastes just like the spring rolls we used to get at Thai Pepper," Dad said as he dipped them in Mama's house-made chili sauce.
Our other appetizers also shared a striking similarity to Ponluang's past works. Grilled calamari salad was full of tender pieces of squid cut into intricate honeycomb patterns ($7). Miniature samosas, another of Ponluang's classic dishes, filled fluffy, mild pastries with a creamy, curry-scented potato filling ($7). And I've never had a better version of Vietnamese rice paper rolls than Mama's version, so clean and fresh with plenty of nuoc cham (tangy vinegar sauce) served on the side ($7). Any of those starters are about the perfect complement to Thai iced tea ($3). Mama's version, served in a cool, studded glass, tastes of clove and spice and is damned near irresistible.
Even the typical Thai and Vietnamese dishes that are ubiquitous at eateries across South Florida have a distinct flavor at Mama. You can get red curry just about anywhere these days. But at how many places can you have it paired with fresh asparagus and a silken fillet of Chilean sea bass, moist and supple atop the spicy curry ($25)? We could tell right away that this curry didn't come from a tin: The kaffir lime leaf still floating in the pungent coconut sauce was proof. Along the same lines, a fresh basil and ginger stir fry with chunks of well-cooked tofu ($9) was like a bouquet of fresh minced ginger and garlic cavorting with crisp onion and plenty of taut slices of bell pepper.
Unlike at Coco or Thai Pepper before it, Mama's menu yields a good bit of ground to noodles. Three sections are dedicated to the ultimate Asian comfort food, and each is interspersed with preparations of Thai, Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese origin. You'd think with such a wide variety, there would be at least some near-misses, but each of Mama's noodles we tried tasted like it could headline at restaurants devoted to just one cuisine. Our Vietnamese grilled pork noodle dish ($8) had everything going for it: chewy strips of marinated, cooked pork; clear, slurpable rice noodles livened with nuoc cham; and a scattering of crushed peanuts, fresh lettuce, and bean sprouts. And unlike the version I've tried at most Vietnamese joints, it didn't need a whole lot of outside help in the flavoring department — though I did end up spritzing my bowl with a little bit of the soy sauce and srirachi provided on each table. A version of pad Thai ($14) we tried had the mustiness of peanut combined with the redolent tang of fish sauce too. The only slight miss came in the form of a poor description: An order of spicy coconut noodle soup ($10) was less a soup than noodles bathing in a light red curry.
Even so, with the majority of these noodle dishes checking in under $10, there's little to complain about at Mama. Especially when you factor in the warm, contemporary atmosphere, highlighted by red leather booths with clean white tables and brick-red drop ceilings with sleek accent lighting. Plus, the staff has about the same warming effect as a pile of freshly laundered blankets. As my parents and I finished our meal, owner Lisa Ponluang came walking by to greet the tables. When she spotted my parents, she immediately recognized them, even though the last time she'd seen them was almost five years ago at Thai Pepper.
Mom and Dad stayed and chatted with Lisa for a while, talking about her own kids and how the past few years had treated her and Mike. As we left, they promised to make Mama their new go-to Thai spot as well. My mom was especially eager to get back for another visit.
"I've got so much more of the menu to try," she said.
I couldn't help but chuckle.