What happens when a Michelin-starred chef, one of the country’s foremost innovators of forward-thinking, California-inflected Chinese-American cuisine, tries his hand at sweet-and-sour chicken and beef and broccoli — the kinds of dishes typically associated with humble takeout joints and steam-table operations like Panda Express? Hopefully great deliciousness, if Brandon Jew (of Mister Jiu’s and Moongate Lounge) has his way. Mamahuhu, Jew’s new counter-service restaurant at 517 Clement Street in the Inner Richmond, will take on that very project when it opens to the public this Wednesday, January 15.
The new restaurant is the end result of Jew’s own evolution in thinking when it comes to dishes like sweet-and-sour chicken — dishes he says he always enjoyed eating, but only recently embraced as a chef. The challenge, he says, was figuring out how he could capture the flavors of these dishes while staying true to his commitment to sourcing high-quality ingredients — and to do all that without making the restaurant super-expensive. At Mamahuhu, he’s reinventing these Chinese-American classics, then, but not in such a way that they become fine-dining dishes. Everything on the menu is priced at $19 or less, with a $15 combo plate as a baseline option for a full meal, and Jew says he’s committed to keeping the pricing accessible.
The key, it turned out, was to use a lot of humble ingredients like carrots, radishes, broccoli, and mushrooms — and to make those ingredients shine using traditional Chinese cooking techniques. “How can I use the kinds of vegetables that the farms I have can get consistently?” he says. “How can some of those be the inspiration for the beginning of a dish?”
All of the dishes at coming out of Mamahuhu’s kitchen — whose day-to-day operations will be helmed by Mister Jiu’s alum Noah Kopito — have a higher proportion of vegetables than what you’d usually encounter. To his beef and broccoli, he adds king trumpet mushrooms, which add an extra meaty component. For his vegan mapo tofu, he uses differently-sized cuts of shiitake mushroom to give the dish a more satisfying texture. For a cold salad appetizer, he tosses celtuce — another undersung vegetable — in a spicy mala vinaigrette. And Jew’s take on sweet-and-sour chicken is made with hawthorn (the original, natural coloring agent used in the dish), honey, and a batter made with soda water, rice flour, and other starches to achieve the ideal crunch.
For dessert, there’s something Jew has dubbed the “chop suey sundae” — a nod to Fong Fong Bakery Ice Cream, a historic Chinatown ice cream shop that used to serve a dish by that name. Jew’s version features a soft-serve ice cream made with Hodo soy milk, toasted rice, and ginger to emulate the flavor of tofu pudding with ginger syrup — a classic Chinese dessert — and topped with tea jelly, black sesame sago, and a house-made almond cookie.
With each of Jew’s projects, the chef says he thought about exactly what kind of Chinese restaurant he wanted to evoke or pay homage to. There is, for instance, the picture of a traditional Chinese family restaurant that many Chinese Americans might have in their mind’s eye — the big fish tank, the round tables with lazy Susans. Then there’s the prototypical quick-service dim sum deli, and the old-school Chinese-American takeout joint, with its white takeout cartons, disposable chopsticks, and soy sauce packets.
Mamahuhu aims to strike a happy medium between those two categories of Chinese dining experiences, Jew says. It’s meant, first and foremost, to be a restaurant where customers can sit and enjoy their meal — but with counter service, and a more casual vibe than the kind of place where the waiter ladles your soup out at the table. And unlike at, say, Mister Jiu’s and Moongate Lounge, Jew wants Mamahuhu to be the sort of restaurant where customers can come in just to order takeout. Eventually, there will be delivery service too. (Though it did its initial test run via Caviar, the restaurant will take a short break from delivery while the kitchen team gets its bearings.)
There won’t be fortune cookies, Jew says. But he will use those classic white cartons for takeout. The restaurant also has a beer and wine license, so there’s a tight list of three wines, all offered on tap. There will also be a small tea, vinegar, and soda program, with offerings like a pu-erh tea soda made with a concentrated tea syrup. “No crazy, crazy parties,” Jew says. “Just food parties and maybe caffeine parties.”
The dining room itself has a contemporary feel, with a stylish green and pinkish-red color scheme, and the restaurant’s 38 seats divided between two-tops, small wooden booths, and a larger communal high-top table in front. With its ceramic jars of chopsticks at each table, it’s a more casual space than either of Jew’s other restaurants by several orders of magnitude. The wall art — two paintings of horses next to two paintings of tigers — is a play on the restaurant’s name, “mamahuhu,” which is a self-deprecating way of saying “so-so,” but also translates literally as “horse, horse, tiger, tiger.”
For many years, the space was occupied by a Chinese grocery store and organic produce market, and Jew says his initial attraction to it was simple: He lives a few blocks away, in his grandparents’ old house, and he says he’s always loved the little cluster of food spots on this stretch of Clement — because of the liveliness of the foot traffic and the range of options he’s seen emerge over years, from little dim sum takeout shops to Michelin-starred sushi.
“It’s made me more interested in trying to be part of the neighborhood in a different way,” he says.
Mamahuhu’s initial hours will be Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30–9:30 p.m., though the eventual plan is to be open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. See the full opening menu below: