Hungry New Haveners can now head to a hot new food destination in town: Mecha Noodle Bar, a restaurant that serves Asian noodle dishes ranging from Japanese ramen to Vietnamese pho, opened its doors Sept. 25.
Mecha’s New Haven location at 201 Crown St. is the third franchise to open since the first restaurant was started in Fairfield in 2013. Mecha co-founder Tony Pham said he anticipates expanding into other Connecticut cities such as Stamford and other nearby college campuses in the future. Still, he noted that it is important that expansion does not compromise Mecha’s signature features and values.
“Our mission is to transform taste and tradition to pride and progress through Southeast Asian comfort food in a fun, communal, high-energy environment,” said Daryl Wells, one of Mecha’s general managers.
To his fellow staff, Wells is known as “Elm City Sensei.” Each member of Mecha’s team has a self-designated title, including Pham himself: “The Troublemaker.”
Pham said his initial inspiration for the restaurant grew from his appreciation for the heartfelt, home-brewed comfort food his mother cooked for him when he was a child. The word “mecha” itself is a Vietnamese word meaning “mom and pop.”
Beyond its food, Mecha also aims to craft a comfortable and “shoulder-rubbing” setting for customers to enjoy their meals, Wells said. He added that the unadorned concrete floor, long communal dining tables and construction-wood blocks that hang down from the ceiling were all deliberate architectural choices made to match a comfortable setting to the many comfort food options offered.
“We want everyone to feel welcome,” Wells said.
This guiding principle, he said, is the reason Mecha does not take reservations but still receives a full house and a line extending outside the restaurant door.
The restaurant aims to recreate the familiar for its customers, but also makes strides into culinary territory foreign to many. On its menu, spiked bubble teas and the unique cocktail-in-a-bowl “The Scorpion” sit alongside traditional Thai and Japanese beers.
Despite Mecha’s adventurous and diverse menu, Wells emphasized that the restaurant cannot be labeled as “Asian fusion.”
“We’re not fusing anything,” he said. “We want to embrace all the cultures we represent as they really are.”
The competition among ramen restaurants today is fierce, Pham noted. In New Haven alone, Mecha joins a tide of recently opened noodle shops, including three pho restaurants and one ramen restaurant in the past two years. And some of the country’s most famous ramen shops are in nearby New York City, including Ippudo and Totto Ramen.
For some customers, the tendency for comparison is strong. When asked about her experience with one of Mecha’s ramen bowls, customer Aileen Huang ’17 said it was “nothing to write home about.”
“It’s got a lot of great things, but does it have the same level of depth and complexity as Ippudo ramen? No,” Huang said.
Pham, however, said the restaurant is not looking to just imitate other noodle shops, and instead will analyze what initiatives are successful in New Haven to best adapt to its new and growing customer base. Wells added that the team will wait and see what “naturally takes off in New Haven.”
Starting Monday, Mecha will begin holding happy hours between 3 and 6 p.m. each weekday. It also plans to start a late-night program that will combine special menu items and board games such as Jenga and dominos — which are already available behind the restaurant’s bar. Wells anticipates late-night Mecha will be a way for people to “wind down from the business of the street.”
Though Mecha is a 10-minute walk from campus for most Yale students, Wells is not worried that the distance will deter students from attending the late-night program. Located near the corner of Crown and Temple streets downtown, Mecha is surrounded by bars and nightclubs.
“If Yale students can make it to Bar and Barcelona then I know they can make it to Mecha,” Wells said.
Another priority of Pham’s is having the restaurant act as an agent of social change in the country. Pham started in 2015 a philanthropic initiative called Eat Justice, in which the Fairfield Mecha location makes a fractional contribution to a chosen cause with every noodle bowl sold.
The restaurant is supporting breast cancer awareness and making donations to the Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center. Pham has plans to expand the program to Mecha’s other two locations as well.
Mecha’s second franchise is in South Norwalk.