Fashion forward

Ma Jong’s Asian Diner

1431 L St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 442-7555

When I was a kid, I loved to play with my grandmother’s old set of delicate little mah-jongg tiles. I’d set them up in elaborate snaking rows and topple them like dominos. I had no idea how to play the actual game they were intended for (I still don’t), nor did I have any idea that they were a relic of a fantastically popular 1920s fad.

I doubt that many diners at the new quick-service restaurant Ma Jong’s Asian Diner are thinking too hard about the origins of the restaurant’s namesake game, either. The restaurant represents the casual side of The Park Downtown, the strikingly ambitious complex developed by the Wong brothers, of Sun G. Wong Enterprises—who, it should be pointed out, got their start in Asian fast food with the restaurant Ah Chop Chop. With this new venture, the Wongs may well be hoping to capture some of the energy of that long-ago mah-jongg craze.

From the looks of the line on a recent Tuesday, they may well have done so. It snaked out the door just like one of those rows of tiles I used to set up, and we were almost discouraged by its length. We had arrived before noon in an effort to beat the lunch rush, but I guess many nearby office workers eat early. Or maybe they’re just pleased to have a new place for lunch in the neighborhood, especially one as stylish as Ma Jong’s. It may be quick service, but the design is great, with handsome brick walls and mod dark-wood paneling, gorgeous pumpkin-like silk lantern light fixtures and sleek (if occasionally awkward; don’t lean back) super-low-back chairs. In any case, it’s a prime location, just across from Capitol Park. You pick up a menu at the door and order at the counter, and the line, however long, moves fast.

Whatever you’ve ordered from the list of pan-Asian choices is brought out to the table, and that arrives quickly, too. If previous experience has taught you to associate the words “Asian fast food” with gloppy, sweet sauces tingling with MSG and dishes chock-full of overcooked vegetables, think again. Asian food, stir-fry in particular, lends itself well to the quick-service restaurant model, and most of the food at Ma Jong’s is fresh and seems to be cooked to order.

We started out with a dish of pot stickers and a small plate of Vietnamese salad rolls. With fresh rolls, it’s easy to tell if they’ve been sitting around; the translucent rice-paper wrappers turn chewy and tough quickly. These were delightfully tender, refreshingly full of herbs and accompanied by a nice peanut dipping sauce. The pork inside was a bit dry, but the shrimp lent sweet moisture.

The pot stickers, however, were less successful: Perhaps hurrying them along was at fault, but they were pale blond on the “stuck” side rather than nicely browned, and the wrappers were thick and doughy. I liked the juicy, savory blend of chicken, cabbage and white pepper in the filling, however.

I thought the Shanghai noodle soup I ordered would be an individual portion, but the big bowl came with two smaller bowls and a ladle, so I shared. Its udon noodles were thick but a touch overcooked, and the moderately spicy broth was one-dimensional. Its heat (which tasted like it was derived from a dollop of Chinese chili sauce) predominated and erased other nuances. The shrimp and chicken in it were good, but I would have liked more of the greens and vegetables to round out the portion.

We also tried a dish of pad Thai, with thin rice noodles; reddish sauce; and the usual complement of shrimp, chicken, eggs and some vegetables. I thought the sauce could have used a little more life and flavor; it was pleasantly sweet but undistinguished.

The hit of the day was tofu with black-bean sauce from the list of “Ma’s signature dishes.” With these dishes, you can choose your protein (chicken, beef, shrimp or tofu) to go in a stir-fry. Examples include a Thai basil sauce with peppers and onions; a ginger-honey soy sauce with sugar snap peas; and Mandarin kung-pao stir-fry with zucchini, peppers, onions, peanuts and chili-garlic sauce. I was impressed with the freshness of the dish, which was evidently tossed together to order. The stir-fry with garlic black-bean sauce has sugar snap peas, and here they were crisp, bright and delicious. (I’ve found that sugar snap peas turn a drab, limp olive green after just a few minutes of sitting around, so they’re a sure indication of the age of a dish.) The tofu’s fried crust tasted a little floury, but the rice with the dish was perfectly cooked, and the sauce was nicely piquant—and not the least bit gloppy.

The dishes I spotted on other diners’ tables looked similarly fresh, so it’s no surprise that the lunch crowd is already turning out for this new sensation. Whether the restaurant will have more staying power than the old mah-jongg craze, however, remains to be seen.