Momona Noodle and Bao in Chico
● By Melissa Mendonca
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Paula Schultz
As cooler weather arrives, cravings for comfort foods set in, including, sometimes, a hot bowl of soup or noodles. A year ago last month, Sarah Schlobohm, 27, and Mahina Gannet, 32, opened the doors to Momona Noodle and Bao, bringing Chico foodies a fresh new place to satisfy noodle cravings that is far from the ramen they likely grew up on.
“We've both had a small obsession with Japanese food and culture,” says Gannet, who sees herself as the house manager of the joint venture. “I love our style. I think we've really taken from the Japanese and Hawaiian tradition, but with a Chico lens.”
The menu is focused on Japanese style ramen noodle soups and Taiwanese style open bao – small, house-made buns filled with combinations such as pork belly, hoisin and cucumber pickles. The “Chico lens” Gannet speaks of means local kale might stand in for Nori, and the pork belly comes from Rancho Lano Seco.
“We're very much about a very high quality of food but in a more casual atmosphere,” says Schlobohm, who is the executive chef, using her experience from the culinary program at the Art Institute in Sacramento and on the job helping to open Grana, also in Chico.
The two, who met through partners in the Chico music scene, began their culinary venture with supper clubs at Gannet's house serving 20 people five-course meals. “My resume doesn't exactly translate to any normal job in Chico,” she says. “So I thought, 'I think I better start my own business if I'm going to stay in Chico.'” She landed in the town to be with her boyfriend after a career that included live music production and tour management for such acts as Death Cab for Cutie, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow and Eric Clapton.
Schlobohm, who grew up in Chico, says, “I never really had a solid direction. In the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to go to culinary school. Then one day I wondered, ‘Why don’t I?’” Now she says she’s in love with what she describes as “this whole crazy culinary world” and adds, “I’ll probably stay in it forever. I’m already looking at the next angle.”
Momona has become a downtown favorite and occupies the space of two former community favorites, Spice Creek Cafe and Cory's. People who have been around awhile recognize the tables and chairs from Cory's but also note that the restaurant has a unique design. It's “light, air, plants, wood, natural textures,” says Gannet. The graphic design of the restaurant logo feels modern and fun. “It just worked out that Momonoa was almost in the shape of noodles,” she adds.
While the feel of the restaurant is definitely fresh and hip, there's a no-pretentiousness rule that the duo follows and expects of their team. “We just want real people working for us and to have real conversations with our customers, who have a real interest in our food,” says Schlobohm. They take great pride in serving what they refer to as white tablecloth food, without the white tablecloth.
To that end, customers can watch that real food being made in the open kitchen. “You see everything we're doing,” says Schlobohm, who enjoys the camaraderie that develops between customers and her kitchen crew. “We don't buy sauces,” adds Gannet. “We make every single sauce that's on our menu, which at this point is about 20 sauces.”
The team works with local producers as often as possible, and keeps a list of their purveyors at the entrance. The noodles are shipped from Sun Noodles in Los Angeles, because they are closest in
consistency to the what the pair remember from their travels to ramen houses in Japan. The gluten-free noodles are actually veggies sent through a ricer to look like noodles.
“We tweaked our menu a bit for summer weather but our number one item is still ramen,” says Schlobohm. “It rains and we're packed,” adds Gannet. “Every single time, without fail.”
“I just want to bring good, different food and different culture to Chico,” says Gannet, who grew up in New Jersey and often visited her mother's family in Oahu as a young person. “I feel so lucky to have found this community.”
The pair have a third business partner, financial adviser Michael Lee, and received great help from friends who jumped in to sand, paint and prepare the restaurant for opening day. “It's a culmination of many of us,” says Schlobohm, adding, “we did it with no investors. It was just the three of us.”
“We talked so long about someday, someday, someday,” she muses. “And then one day we asked, 'Why someday?'” On any given rainy night, there's a line of diners at Momona's bar gracefully slurping warm ramen broth, grateful that someday finally arrived.
230 W. 3rd St., Chico