Not far from the sprawling Stonecrest shopping center, Ma Ma Wok is tucked into a small neighborhood center off Elm Lane where, at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, you'll find plenty of parking. Owner Jian Chen, a small woman with a large smile, greets us as we enter. For a moment, there's a slight flicker of worry in her eyes.
"This is all-vegetarian restaurant now," Chen warns. "Is OK?"
I can't help but giggle as my vegan dining partner loudly declares, "That is most definitely OK!"
For the past 11 years, Ma Ma Wok has delighted South Charlotte and Ballantyne-area diners with traditional Chinese dishes such as General Tso's Chicken, Orange Peel Chicken and Sa Cha Beef. And while the restaurant continues to serve those dishes to customers, as of August 1, Ma Ma Wok became a 100-percent vegetarian restaurant. Those meat items are now prepared with meat substitues.
"Some customers are upset. Very upset," Chen says. "And they have a right to their opinions. But most customers, they are happy for us and willing to try. And once they try, they like.
"Everyone is eating more vegetarian these days — one meatless meal a day, or one meatless meal a week," Chen continues. "And it is good food. It is delicious food. It is prepared exact same way. It is almost exactly the same — there is just no meat."
Ma Ma Wok's transition was big news for vegans and vegetarians, whose choices in the Charlotte area continue to grow as meatless diets become more mainstream.
We ask Chen if her decision to go all-veg was a business strategy. No, she answers. "Business was very good before. No need change for more business," Chen says. "But my family has been vegetarian for years — because it is healthy, because of environment, because of animal love. We want to support vegetarianism in the community. Making this restaurant all-veg was the right thing to do."
Long known for its takeout menu, Ma Ma Wok also has a dining area with five comfortable booths and several small tables accomodating about 35. We choose a booth by the window; nearby, a few other booths are filled with Asian families, always a good sign at a Chinese restaurant. Sounds and smells from the kitchen are minimal. It's a simple, but pleasant dine-in experience.
As we review the menu, Chen offers suggestions. We talk about vegetarianism, the veg community in Charlotte, and what made her decide to make such a major, potentially risky change to a well-established restaurant. As we chat, her enthusiasm for Ma Ma Wok's new vegetarian phase is evident.
A big part of the transition is Ma Ma Wok's new chef, Fang Xian Chen (no relation), who owned the popular Garden Café in Orlando for 13 years. The Garden Café was notable for its ultra-fresh vegetables and perfectly spiced sauces, and had a cult status among vegetarians nationwide. Garden was one of the first restaurants to use a variety of faux meats in different textures. For example, the same soy chicken chunks were not used for all chicken dishes; nor were the same seitan beef strips used for all beef dishes. After undergoing new ownership in 2011, Garden closed in June 2016.
Chef Fang moved to the Charlotte area to be closer to his child, who attended college here, and he initially worked at Lee Café, an unassuming but popular Chinese restaurant in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Due to spiritual reasons (he's a Taoist) and health reasons (he suffered from kidney stones), Chef Fang has been vegetarian for 21 years.
The big question for me and my partner was this: How does Ma Ma Wok's vegetarian food taste? Although I am a vegan foodie who always wants to support local veg businesses, I cannot endorse mediocre food just because it's vegan or vegetarian.
Ma Ma Wok fulfilled all my expectations for good vegan fare.
The menu is long and comprehensive. If you are veg in Charlotte and have resigned yourself to steamed Chinese vegetables or "Bean Curd Family Style," prepare to have your world (and taste buds) rocked.
The new menu at Ma Ma Wok offers vegetarian (and often vegan) versions of almost everything you have ever seen, or dreamed of, on a Chinese menu. Not only does it include 12 appetizers (I admit, the French fries are stretching it), seven soups, five varieties of fried rice, four different noodles (customized with four choices of veggie protein), and 11 veggie sushis, the menue boasts 53 entrees. That's a lot of choices on one menu.
Don't feel like Chinese? No worries. The menu also includees a veggie burger and Portobello mushroom sandwich.
Ma Ma Wok's menu could use a clarification, though. While all items are vegetarian, not all of them are vegan. In some categories, vegan items are clearly marked; in others, they are not. I suspect this is because vegan may depend on the veggie meat option you choose.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. My dining partner and I ask Chen numerous questions — even before I revealed my "secret identity" as a Creative Loafing food reporter. Believing us to be two ordinary (if abnormally curious) vegans who somehow bumbled in to the restaurant, Chen is extraordinarily helpful. She goes back to the kitchen to ask Chef Fang questions; checks the packaging on the veggie proteins. I get the feeling this is the kind of restaurant that will work with you on your dietary requirements, whether those requirements are based on your religion, ethics, or medical needs.
We start with appetizers: Lettuce Wraps with celery, bell peppers, and vegetarian ham ($6.99). Though this item isn't marked "vegan" on the menu, Chen confirms that it is. The wraps are attractively served with the filling pre-portioned into romaine lettuce leaves. My dining partner tells me he has never seen lettuce wraps before that were not "do it yourself," but served this way, the wraps are easier to share and less messy to eat.
We also order the Spring Rolls ($1.79), which are piping hot, and despite being deep-fried, they're not at all greasy. (All of the food we order is light on oil). Though Chen informs us the Spring Rolls are house-made and not frozen, it was already quite deliciously obvious.
"Except for the veggie meats, everything we serve is fresh," she says. "We make here. Our spring rolls, our sauces — everything."
For entrees, my dining partner orders the Spicy Orange Peel Chicken ($10.99). A beautifully plated dish, the orange color of the sauce contrasts brilliantly with the bright green of the broccoli. The orange flavor from the zest is strong, and the texture of the chicken is disconcertingly realistic. I don't often believe faux meats will fool an omnivore, but the Spicy Orange Peel Chicken just might.
I choose the Asparagus with Chicken — very thinly sliced "chicken" strips with asparagus, carrots, mushrooms and broccoli ($14.99). I tell Chen that I prefer it spicy and she assures me, "We can customize your order. More spicy, less spicy; salty, less salty. We can make the Orange Peel chicken less sweet." When my order arrives it is perfectly spicy — enough to taste, but at a level most people can handle. The thinly sliced "chicken" tastes more like beef, but whatever; it satisfies my umami cravings. All of the vegetables, from the asparagus to mushrooms, are cooked to perfection.
Overall, the meal is exquisite. Chef Fang definitely knows his way around a wok.
We leave with to-go boxes, feeling comfortably full and a little nostalgic. Nostalgic, because I know that once word gets out in Charlotte's rapidly growing veg community, quiet Wednesday evenings spent leisurely talking to Chen and Chef Fang will be a thing of the past.