Friends and business partners Charlie Mai and Peter Huynh make running a first restaurant sound easy. “Things are going great, the neighborhood has been great,” says Huynh. The two opened 1981 Ramen Bar in Lowell Sept. 1. “I’m the front-end guy, he’s the chef, the mastermind,” says Huynh.
Mai is Vietnamese-American, Huynh is Chinese-American, and aside from being good friends since boyhood, the two, both 34, have restaurant backgrounds, which may explain their easygoing attitude. Huynh’s family owns the Chau Chow City restaurants in Chinatown and Dorchester, and Mai has worked with the pop-up restaurant Whisk.
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The city has welcomed the duo. “Everyone has been amazing and we really try to bring a variety of food out here,” says Huynh. The Boston natives chose Lowell after spending time in the city for years and feeling like there was a lack of diversity on the food scene. “We wanted to offer something different,” he says.
Mai says that 1981 distinguishes itself by being fearless about playing with tradition, adding Asian tapas to the menu in addition to the noodle soup. “It’s Asian but with my French cooking background it’s a little bit fusion, so we have stuff like short-rib arancini, an Asian-style Bolognese, which is usually Italian. But we do a spicy miso in it, and gnocchi, but made with rice instead of potato.”
According to Huynh, even the ramen isn’t traditional. “Everybody sticks to their game plan when it comes to ramen. We make what ramen is to us; we make the pork broth, the tonkotsu, but then we add a lot of our own ingredients . . . so we make it our ramen rather than try to imitate someone else.”
Their own ingredients might include Berkshire pork belly, black garlic mayonnaise, or pickled shiitakes, and Mai simmers heritage breed pork bones for 48 hours to make the rich broth. “It’s definitely a scratch kitchen,” says the chef.
Huynh says naming the restaurant was a breeze, “Charlie and I, we’ve been buddies since we were 16 years old, both born on Jan. 9 in the year ’81.”
It all makes perfect sense.