Ma’s chicken noodle soup
When I first spied Cid’s Ma Mon Luk hiding in a tiny storefront next door to the now empty and boarded-up Golf Glen Theater, on a recent trip to the nearby SunView market in Niles, I thought the name looked familiar. A quick search of LTH-Forum indeed rendered a brief mention of another similarly named restaurant on Southport and Irving Park(which is now closed?). At first I thought the two venues must be somehow related, but a little more research revealed that Ma Mon Luk is a commonly used name for Filipino restaurants (although the name is Chinese).
For decades, there was a very popular Cantonese restaurant in Manila by that name, which grew into a small chain. At one point in the 1990s, there were five Ma Mon Luk restaurants operating in Manila. Currently there are only two. Both are still owned by descendents of the original founder, the venerable Ma Mon Luk. There is another small chain of similar restaurants, called Masuki, which are owned by Mr. Ma's grandnieces.
Both Cid's and the closed restaurant on Southport, as well as another in California, all of which use the Ma Mon Luk name, are totally unrelated to the original in the Philipines. I am not sure the imitators are really trying to co-opt the brand name of the original venture as much as they are paying homage to the Algeresque legend of its founding proprietor with the same name.
From what I could find online, Ma Mon Luk was a young Chinese schoolteacher who lived in Guangdong in the early 20th century. He fell in love with a rich businessman’s daughter. When he asked for the girl’s hand in marriage, the girl’s father told Ma that, being a lowly schoolteacher, he was too poor to marry. So Ma swore that he would go out and make his mark, then return to Guangdong as a successful businessman to claim his bride. In 1918, Ma spent the last of his money to travel to the Philippines to seek his fortune.
Shortly after arriving in Manila, he scrounged together enough money to start peddling Cantonese style egg noodles on the streets of the city. He would carry a bamboo pole across his shoulders with a bucket on either end. One of the buckets held hot coals and a container of hot broth, while the other held strips of dried chicken and sheets of Ma’s special noodles. Although there already were many noodle sellers in Manila, Ma was the first to offer this Guangdong specialty. Around his waist, Ma wore a pair of scissors on a rope. When a customer bought noodles, they would order them by length. Ma would then cut the noodles to the desired length with his scissors and drop them in the boiling broth with strips of chicken to cook for a minute before dishing them into a bowl.
Ma Mon Luk would walk all over Manila hawking his soup. After a short while, he developed a solid following, especially among the students of Manila who were always looking for cheap eats. Ma’s devoted customers dubbed his noodle soup “mami”. Some sources claim the name originated as a combination of the Tagalog words for chicken and noodle. Others say it simply means Ma’s noodles (I think this is more likely). Eventually, a customer of Ma’s offered him the use of a kitchen and a small space in which to set up some tables. Now that he had a kitchen at his disposal, Ma introduced another delicious Cantonese specialty, the Siu Bao, or steamed pork bun. The Siu Bao were served with Ma’s “secret” sauce that made them even more appealing.
Ma Mon Luk’s restaurant quickly started growing in reputation and size. Nevertheless, the now prospering Mr.Ma continued walking about town with his buckets on a pole, giving away samples of his noodle soup as a promotion for his restaurant. Soon, people came from all over Manila to taste the house specialties of Mami and Siopao. Eventually, Ma Mon Luk became one of the most celebrated restaurateurs in the Philippines, and his invention, Mami became a popular national dish. He died of throat cancer in 1961 at age 63. Oh yeah, and he did go back to Guangdong to marry the girl.
So, armed with this bit of culinary folklore, I ventured into Cid’s Ma Mon Luk to sample their interpretation of Mamonluk's noodle soup and pork buns ( which were advertised prominently in neon in the window). To say Cid’s is tiny is being generous, but I guess that is consistent with the humble beginnings of its more famous namesake. There are only 7-8 small tables crammed into the front half of the storefront, with the kitchen in the back. When I got there at 3:30 in the afternoon, about half the tables were occupied.
When I first saw Cids menu ( http://jacksongray.com/mal/menu.jpg
) and the food on the adjacent tables, I realized there was much more to the little place than just noodles and buns. I was almost tempted to deviate from my plan, but in the end I ordered what I had originally intended, soup and a Siopao. I also ordered a glass of calamansi juice.
The Mami comes in a variety of configurations with different meat options and a couple of noodle options. I got the impression one could pretty much order the soup any way they want. I ordered the “house” Mami which contained a little of everything (wontons, duck, pork lechon, fish balls, shrimp and beef). Because this version contained wontons, the noodles used were of a thinner variety. I think “Cid’s Mami”, which is made with Lechon, Roast Garlic and egg, uses a slightly thicker noodle. Anyhow, the soup was quite tasty, and certainly hit the spot on a cold winter day. The duck and pork were the predominate flavors, the pork imparted a smoky flavor to the rich broth, and the roast duck gave it a touch of the comforting aromatic oiliness that only rendered duck fat can provide. The fish balls, on the other hand, were rather bland, but provided a nice texture. The beef was tender and stewed in a slightly sour marinade. The wontons were stuffed with a garlicky seasoned ground meat filling. Despite the “everything but the kitchen sink” configuration of the dish, it was actually made with a deft hand, very well balanced. The noodles were of the thinner variety much like an angel hair pasta or skinny vermicelli. The next time, I will order Mami without wontons, which should come with slightly thicker noodles.
As to Ma Mon Luk’s other signature specialty, Cid offers 5 types of Siopao. The regular Siopao is filled with shredded pork, chicken and egg. I ordered the “special” Siopao, which also contained that sweet dried Chinese sausage. The Siopao was the size and shape of a small grapefruit, and came wrapped in plastic wrap. I thought it was a little weird that they didn’t remove the wrap before serving, but actually it kept the bun nice and moist until I was ready to eat it.
The Siopao's steamed dough was somewhat gum-like but still moist and light inside. It was was packed full of shredded a meat filling that was slightly sweet, tender and flavorful. The bits of dried sausage made a nice addition. The accompanying sauce was fruity but not overly syrupy. All in all, it was a very nice rendition of a steamed pork bun. The next time I will try the adobo filling.
The Calamansi juice was wonderful. The flavor was sort of a cross between lemon, lime, and tangerine. It was fresh squeezed and sweetened just enough to not overwhelm the tangy citrus flavor. It was very refreshing, and a perfect accompaniment to the hot soup.
So, in summary, it is very difficult to judge a restaurant with a single solo experience, but what I had at Cid’s, I enjoyed. I also liked the look of the dishes I saw served to other customers (the place is so small it is difficult not to pay attention to what others are eating). I am not very familiar with Filipino cuisine, so I don’t really have a standard by which to gauge the quality of the food at Cid’s. However, I overheard the discussion of two young Filipino-American women at the next table as they carefully analyzed each dish they sampled. They seemed very impressed with Cid’s interpretation of certain dishes, others, not so much. I would be very interested in what others, who are more familiar with the cuisine than myself have to say about the place. I will definitely be going back to try some of the other menu items (not to mention the $4.95 lunch specials). The lechon kawali in my soup was very tasty. I would like to return to try a whole order of that.
By the way, the Golf-Glen shopping center is an amazing little place to explore, despite the derelict condition of the anchor theater complex. Aside from Ma Mon Luk, there is Sun View market (which has an amazing selection of breads and feta cheese), a Korean BBQ, a Korean karaoke bar with food, a Chinese restaurant, the Filipianna Restaurant, a small but interesting Filipino grocery, two small Indo-Pak groceries (and video store), a newly opened Sushi place, a Ginseng store, a Russian gift store and the venerable Omega Greek-American coffee-shop. We could probably do a whole Golf-Glen-a-thon.
Cid's Ma Mon Luk
9182 W Golf Rd
Niles, IL 60714
note: edited to fix picture links