A Noodle House With No Rules Is Exactly What Philly Needs Right Now
Mawn fills the hole Kalaya left on South 9th Street with Night Market Noodles, papaya salad, chili jam and chicken soup with schmaltz.
Walk into Mawn, and it’ll take you five minutes to know that something is going on here.
Not even five minutes. Less. You’ll feel it radiating from the kitchen and bouncing off the walls — this energy, this joy. In the dining room, on a busy night, it can jump from table to table like electricity. Like the whole room catching fire.
This place was Kalaya once. The original. Anyone in this city would be nuts to take on this space after Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon moved to her big, beautiful new Kalaya a few neighborhoods over. The shoes you’d have to fill? Massive.
But Phila Lorn and his wife, Rachel, were made for this. They’d been working in Philly restaurants for years. They met in Philly restaurants, came up through Philly restaurants, and now run their own. I mean, Phila? His family came here as refugees in 1985 after surviving the war in Cambodia. He was their first child born in the United States, and his parents named him for the city they settled in: “Pee-la.” Now, you walk in and don’t see Kalaya at all. The pale walls, the hardwood, the narrow room? You don’t even think Kalaya, which, maybe, is the greatest compliment anyone could give the place.
On the tables, curls of crispy chicken skin and whole fish picked down to the bone. Saht koh — ground rib eye packed onto a stick, similar to kofta kebab — with a sting of ginger and lemongrass. Head-on shrimp curled like leggy commas on a small plate, wearing leaves of Thai basil and smelling of fish sauce. The menu is a page, single-sided. It reads like a poem. An elegy, really, for a culture and a cuisine nearly lost to war and genocide but very much alive now on South 9th Street — remixed, modernized, spiked with American and Jewish and Thai influences. There’s papaya salad dusted with ground shrimp, tamarind and bird eye chili; chicken noodle soup fortified with schmaltz; piles of sliced, perfect-pink rib eye stacked like the aftermath of a bad Jenga game and crowned with a forest of green herbs and prohok (like chimichurri if chimichurri was both sweet and angry all the time).
The Lorns call the place “a noodle house with no rules,” and that’s apt. I’ve had noodles here unlike any I’ve ever had — khao soi, with two kinds of ramen noodles swimming in a red curry broth with slivered raw red onion; a katiew with shaved Wagyu like fancy Steak-Ums and little fists of oxtail in a mild bone-marrow broth jumped up with chili jam and pickled jalapeños. One day, I had cold wives noodles tossed in oyster sauce and chili oil, bulked up with a little ground boar and topped with crunchy ramen. Phila calls the dish “Night Market Noodles,” and I had mine with chicken on a day the kitchen had no poached shrimp. Which was fine with me, because the chicken was revelatory. Soft, almost velveted, and shredded to rags, it picked up every flavor in the bowl, stuck to every noodle, made it so good that I didn’t want to finish the bowl because finishing would just mean I’d have to eat something else tomorrow, and I couldn’t imagine anything else being this perfect.
What was even more remarkable about that particular dish? Rather than falling off, becoming rote, it was actually better than dishes I’d had in that dining room on other, earlier nights. It was different now than the same dish had been at the beginning of summer — sharper, more focused, the flavor somehow more whole and round. I’d liked the place a lot when I first went — understood the weight of it, the biographical details still being worked out in the margins of the menu, the layers of references to other restaurants and other neighborhoods. But in the heat of late August, I loved it more than anything. Soft-shell shrimp with a chili burn that was road-flare bright. Cold noodles and kroeung paste. Everything tasted like lemongrass and basil leaves and chilies, some psychedelic Cambodian cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” wailed out of the radio, and I just didn’t want to go.
To eat at Mawn right now is to understand where Philly’s restaurant scene is going. It is a defining restaurant. A benchmark (like Kalaya before it) against which so much will be judged. It is a restaurant that manages to look forward and backward at the same time, offering history and tragedy and love and family all jumbled up together on plates executed with a precise and earned understanding of where Philly’s tastes are today.
Ultimately, Mawn is what any restaurant should aspire to be at its best moment: a story told on the plate — a conversation between the kitchen and anyone who’ll listen.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in Philly
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in Philly
★★★★: come from anywhere in America
Published as “Mawn Is the Moment” in the November 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.