The Women Behind Revered Chinese Chef Peter Chang Get the Spotlight at Mama Chang

The Fairfax City restaurant focuses on home-style dishes from the family's matriarchs

The women of Peter Chang's family are celebrated at the new Mama Chang. Top: Lisa Chang and Peter Chang. Bottom: Ronger Wang and Lydia Chang. Photo by Rey Lopez.

Scallion bubble pancakes are among acclaimed Chinese chef Peter Chang‘s most famous dishes. Except the recipe isn’t his. It actually comes from his wife and pastry chef, Lisa Chang.

“For the longest time, my mom was the secret weapon behind the Peter Chang empire,” says daughter Lydia Chang, who runs the restaurant group’s business operations. “People had no idea she’s also a chef and she works alongside my dad.”

Now the matriarchs of the Chang family are getting their due with the debut of Mama Chang in Fairfax City on March 8. The restaurant will focus on home-style Hunan, Hubei, and Szechuan dishes that in many cases have been passed down for generations.

Green pepper pickled mustard pork is a dish enjoyed at the Chang family dinner table. Photo by Rey Lopez.

One staple dish from the Chang family dinner table is green pepper pickled mustard pork, which uses fragrant peppers in the spring and hotter peppers in the summer. Other recipes come from Peter Chang’s mother, Ronger Wang, who was a farmer in the Hubei province in central China. A vegetarian “farmer’s stir-fry” with tofu skin, egg, Chinese leek, and green pepper was born simply out of the only ingredients available.

“Even if you are a farmer, you would not have enough supply of food,” Lydia explains. “Everything is owned by the party, so anything you harvested, you needed to give it to the authorities. So it was difficult for them to get fresh poultry or seafood. Anything she could get, she would make into a simple stir fry.”

Stir-fried rice cake and homemade fish cake is a staple of the Hubei province. Photo by Rey Lopez.

Many dishes on the menu are classics that every family in the Hubei province would know. For example, stir-fried rice cake and homemade fish cake come in a bright red (but not too spicy) gravy, and a pork rib soup is darkened with braised lotus root.

“You don’t see these types of recipes or menu very often in the states,” Lydia says. “But every household, every family has their own recipes, so this is something they would eat at family gatherings or even a simple dinner.”

Shaobing have croissant-like flaky dough and a sesame seed topping. Photo by Rey Lopez.

Among Lydia Chang’s personal favorites, however, are sesame shaobing (flaky pastries topped with sesame seeds) and crispy duck spring rolls (think Peking duck, including crispy skin, wrapped up in a neat package).

Expect additional dishes to be added to the menu. The restaurant is still perfecting Wang’s “wrap of delicacies” dumplings stuffed with chopped peanuts, crispy rice, and pork and then wrapped with mustard green or bok choy leaves instead of dough. It’s traditionally prepared for the Chinese new year, the most important holiday.

“She started doing it when she was six, so she has been doing it for over 70 years,” Lydia says. “For the longest time, we were trying to duplicate it. We have all these great chefs who are professionally trained, including my dad, but they couldn’t figure it out.”

What you won’t find are the favorite dishes from Peter Chang’s other restaurants. The one exception? Scallion bubble pancakes, of course.

Mama Chang. 703-268-5556. 3251 Old Lee Highway, Fairfax. Open daily for lunch and dinner. 

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.