Tori Gate in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. [Image: Mobilus in Mobili / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

Cambodian-Owned Noodle Shop Reminds South Philadelphia Why Asia Matters

The Mekong ASEAN Asia

Philadelphia (Philly), famous for its diverse cuisine, welcomes a new Cambodian-owned noodle shop called MAWN. With a tentative opening date of January 27, 2023, MAWN owners Phila and Rachel Lorn aim to bring Southeast Asian cuisine to Philly.

MAWN, which is Khmer for chicken, will include a variety of traditional noodle dishes. Examples include Vietnamese pho, Laotian khao poon, Cambodian beef bone noodle soup, and a vegan three-mushroom noodle soup. In addition to noodles, num pang, Cambodian-style sandwiches, will also be sold. By day, MAWN will be a quick fix for your noodle cravings, but by night, will turn into a sit-down eatery, serving up grilled skewers, herbaceous salads, banh chao, a rice flour crepe with vegetables, meat, seafood, and steamed clams with pepper and lime sauce. If that does not sound appetizing enough, on Sundays, customers can even enjoy Cambodian hot pot, family style.

MAWN replaces another Southeast Asian restaurant called Kalaya. Kalaya is a Thai restaurant that has opened in a new location, the Kensington-Fishtown border in Philly. Named after Chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon’s mother, it has won many awards in 2020, from Esquire’s Best New Restaurant in America to being one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Restaurants. Like MAWN, Kalaya pays homage to Chef Nok’s Thai culture both in food and architecture. Dishes are often inspired by Nok’s culinary visits to Thailand and Kalaya’s list of cocktails are named after female characters in Thai folklore and popular culture. According to Katherine Lundberg, Kalaya’s architecture is a “subtle nod to the colonial and architectural motifs of Southeast Asia through custom metal and glass doors.”

Both restaurants, established and upcoming respectively, contribute to Philly’s dominant culture centered around food that has found space for its Asian community. According to the 2020 Census, there are 118,209 Asians in Philly which is about 7.5% of the total population. Philly is also home to the second largest Chinatown on the East Coast. Since the 1830s, supported by increased Asian immigration, Philadelphians have had a deep interest in Asian culture, from art to business and food, which has fostered not only prominent communities like Chinatown, but has also promoted exchanges and advocacy. Advocates for social justice, Philadelphians, starting in 2020, have found ways to protect their neighbors amidst AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) hate and discrimination. In May 2022, Philly developed a new American Chinese Museum to combat Asian hate and advocated for AAPI education in K-12 classes as a part of Pennsylvania House Bill 1917. Philly’s political, cultural, and culinary efforts to increase representation and give space increasingly results in Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders utilizing their own agency to make their own entrepreneurial contributions to the ‘City of Brotherly Love.’

Alura Winfrey is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington participating in the Young Professionals Program. She is a third-year undergraduate student attending George Washington University where she is majoring in International Affairs with a regional concentration in Asia.