Chef Sav Sengsavang brings a whole brunch of good ideas to the table.
Sunny-topped fried rice with sweet and savory Chinese sausage.
By Will Grunewald Photographed by Jeff Roberts
Around Maine, great and creative food so often shows up in seemingly unlikely places that it no longer seems unlikely. In tiny Eustis, at the foot of Mount Bigelow, an unassuming roadhouse serves a primo Wagyu strip (and a pretty good ramen too). It’s national news when a restaurant in an old gristmill in Freedom, population 700, opens up its reservation system each spring. A stone’s throw from the warehouse-esque Oxford casino, pizza chefs sling incredible pies in a 200-year-old barn turned rustic taproom. Etcetera.
But to the extent that unlikeliness is still possible, it can be experienced at Mu Noi Brunch, in a postage-stamp building between a used-car dealership and an equipment-rental depot on a none-too- picturesque stretch of Route 4 in Auburn. There, chef Sav Sengsavang creates things like a Hokkaido-milk-bread French toast and a potato hash with house-made lemongrass-chili sausage and smoky bell-pepper sauce. Arby’s and Taco Bell are just down the road.
Five years ago, owners Sav and Elise Sengsavang moved to Maine from Virginia, where Sav was raised by parents who immigrated from Laos (though his father’s side of the family had Chinese heritage). The couple settled in Bryant Pond, not far from where Elise is from, and ran a popular dinner series in their home while Sav also worked as sous chef at the nearby Norway Brewing Company. In 2018, they started Le Mu Eats, a window-service food trailer in downtown Bethel, serving sandwiches and rice bowls and noodle dishes. Plans for Mu Noi Brunch were already underway when the pandemic hit, and they opened the new restaurant last July. For Sav, it’s a place to explore whatever piques his interest or whets his appetite. “Brunch is this meal where anything is possible,” he says. “Whatever you want to eat, that can be brunch. For us, having a brunch spot is about doing dishes that are fun.”
Clockwise from top: breakfast banh mi with chili-lemongrass sausage; Hokkaido-milk-bread French toast with chocolate ganache and vanilla custard; soufflé pancakes, a special on Wednesdays, here decked out with Fruity Pebbles; sunny-topped fried rice with sweet and savory Chinese sausage.
Options include Thai iced tea, Vietnamese coffee, hot chocolate with house-made marshmallow fluff, and dalgona coffee. The latter — a froth of coffee powder, sugar, and hot water, poured over cold milk — is popular in South Korea.
The full menu is available for take- out and, as of press time, limited indoor dining. Mu Noi also offers certain dishes in family-size meal kits, with all ingredients prepped and ready for cooking at home.
He and his staff make their Japanese-style milk bread from scratch, adding sourdough starter to lend an underlying tanginess. Milk and butter in the mix produce a soft, fluffy bread that, when griddled for French toast, gets crisp at the edges. It holds up nicely under dollops of vanilla custard and hot-fudgy ganache that turn Mu Noi’s French toast into a riff on Boston cream pie. It is, absolutely, a fun dish. “When I was a kid, we didn’t really eat a lot of American food,” Sav says. “But my dad loved Boston cream pie doughnuts, and so did I.”
The menu is laced with family influences. Fried rice with thin slices of sweet-savory Chinese sausage, for instance, was a staple of Sav’s childhood — “something my parents would whip up when there wasn’t a plan for breakfast or dinner.” Even the otherwise familiar wedge salad is dressed in a ranch accented by green curry. The fried chicken sandwich, drizzled with a sweet chili-soy glaze, notably survived a half-hour drive without losing its crunch, and so heaping was the portion that it took half a dozen bites just to reach the bun. “A lot of our food is super-indulgent,” Sav notes. “We like to go over the top.”
Mu Noi’s burrito is built on a similar scale, loaded with what feels like a spin on Mexican-style tinga — pulled chicken typically braised in a sauce of tomato, chili, and onion — except that Sav braises the chicken with massaman curry, then stuffs it in the wrap along with veggies and shredded cheddar. Massaman curry with cheddar cheese? It’s an eyebrow-raising duo, even on a menu that thrives on cultural mash-ups. And yet, as unlikely as their pairing would seem, they taste great together, and that’s fun eating.