"I was going to do an oxtail stew, but it would have taken an hour," says Frances Tariga of NYC's vibey Japanese restaurant/lounge Megu as she lays out her mise en place: a simple spread of noodles, vegetables, chicken, and little green flourishes (scallions, cilantro). "This was my dad's favorite, so I adapted it. My favorite dish is either oxtail, or these noodles. They're easy, simple, and everyone will like them—but they're not good for you."
OK, sure, so a stir-fried noodle dish might not fall into the same nutritional realm as chia pudding, kale chips, and spelt crackers. But it serves a more important purpose, which we'd like to call "hitting the spot."
The ingredients are simple: baby bok choy, cabbage, French beans—"in Filipino, we call them Baguio beans," Tariga tells me—garlic, scallions, egg noodles, marinated chicken, and salt and pepper. To make this Fillipino-Chinese noodle dish, you won't need any trips to that magical market across town that has hard-to-find spice mixes and 30 different types of Chinese greens. Its beauty is in its casual, user-friendly composition.
Tariga calls it lo mein for simplicity, but in the Philippines—where she grew up—it's known as pancit canton in her native Tagalog.
"A lot of Chinese migrated to the Philippines," she says. "That's where we got our noodles from—where we got rice noodles, egg noodles, mung bean noodles. Then it became so popular [that] you can buy this anywhere in the Philippines, actually."
And making them at home is just the ticket when it's late, you're hungry, and you just want something salty and satisfying.
"We make it… not complicated. We don't use sesame oil like in Chinese [food]. I make this at night, when my girlfriend's hungry," Tariga laughs. She also warns that it can get, well, a little messy.
The chicken is marinated in a simple mixture of corn starch, egg whites, and soybean oil, to keep the outside golden brown but the inside juicy when you pan-fry it with garlic and scallions.
Meanwhile, you cook the fresh lo mein noodles till they're al dente. Once the noodles and the chicken are prepped, all you've gotta do is toss everything together. Like, actually.
Tariga's cooking was literally flames as she combined the chicken and noodles with the veggies and doused the whole thing in soy sauce and sweet soy sauce, plus a little extra oil, salt, and pepper for good measure—then flipped it a half dozen times to incorporate all of the flavors.
Yep—this dish is seriously ready in five minutes. And it's a perfect example of how less is more.
With the whole damn thing coated in greasy umami goodness, your super-fast dinner is served.
"If I go home after a busy service, I have noodles! It takes 5 minutes. This is not normally how I cook, with the mess and everything," Tariga promises, adding a few cilantro leaves and a lime squeeze to the finished product. "I'm obsessed with cilantro. Not many Filipino people like cilantro."
"We like salt, vinegar. Everything is sweet, sour, spicy, salty. Umami flavor, but very, very simple." Sounds like just what the doctor ordered for a late-night meal.
RECIPE: Easy Chicken Lo Mein
As for when she's at work, Tariga also incorporates her Filipino upbringing into her food, even though it's primarily Japanese at MEGU. That oxtail she loves so much made it into a dumpling rather than a stew, and someday, she says, she just might sneak adobo on the menu.