For decades, New York has been America's Chinese food Mecca. But Chinese food in New York (and America) remained mostly the same for decades: great versions of classic Americanized Cantonese, Hunan, and Sichuan cuisine. But New Yorkers are constantly looking for the next new culinary innovation, and in the last few years, a proliferation of restaurants serving cuisine from Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan started popping up all over the city, and soon Chinese food followed.
A crop of young chefs (mostly second and third generation Asian-Americans) have been redefining what it means to cook 'authentic' Asian food. Not quite traditional, not quite American, most of these chefs use traditional techniques and exotic ingredients, but play with flavors from other cultures, creating an entirely new take on cuisines that have long remained the same.
Here are a few of the restaurants leading the way for New York's (and America's) Asian culinary revolution:
David Chang, chef and owner of the Momofuku empire, has received as much credit as anyone for transforming Asian food in America. Classically trained, he got his chops at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen and Tom Colicchio's Craft.
The Korean-American chef opened his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, in 2004 and has since become a prolific restaurateur and celebrity chef. Noodle Bar featured (and still does) a Pan-Asian menu – kimchi from Korea, buns with roots in China, and noodles that span multiple cultures in the form of ramen, pho, and ginger scallion noodles. And Chang seemed more concerned about what tasted good than about 'authenticity.'
It wasn’t long before he opened 12-seat tasting menu-only Momofuku Ko and received two Michelin stars and validation, and helped spread the growing credibility of a cuisine that highlights Asian ingredients mixed with French cooking techniques and American dishes.
His newest New York restaurant, Momofuku Nishi, takes the fusion to the next level, mixing Korean and Italian cuisines, like the Ceci e Pepe (a play on cacio e pepe) with butter, chickpea hozon and black pepper, as well as branzino with sunchokes, nori and herb dashi.
The collaboration between dim sum master Joe Ng and legendary (non-Chinese) Chinese restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld was kind of a big deal when it opened up. As the name implies, Red Farm is obsessive about the source of its ingredients; the restaurant likes to describe itself as “innovative, inspired Chinese cuisine with greenmarket sensibility.”
The dumplings and starters here are a standout, putting a fresh spin on standard dim sum fare with items like Katz’s pastrami egg roll, and pork and crab soup dumplings. But the overwhelmingly large menu of mains was also one of the first to challenge New York diners – used to the same old Chinese food – about what Chinese food really is, with items like wok-braised shrimp wontons and ramen noodles, and the Happy Buddha Delight (beancurd skin, bok choy, pickled shallots, double mushroom and cellophane noodles).
If Red Farm focuses heavily on ingredients, Tuome wants to see just how far those ingredients can go. Chef Thomas Chen, formerly of Eleven Madison Park and Commerce, plays with the cuisine of his ancestors in ways few other chefs are doing. The menu at Tuome approaches fine dining with dishes like the deep-fried panko-coated egg with a deviled yoke and red chili oil.
The octopus leg with brown-butter-and-potato foam topped with gingery XO sauce made with chopped caramelized pork and Chinese sausage, fish sauce and dried shrimp is something that you would never have found on a Chinese menu a decade ago. Then again, you probably won't find anything like it at any other Chinese restaurant in the country now, either.
Mission Chinese Food
Mission Chinese Food has as much to do with popularizing the second coming of 'Asian fusion' as just about anywhere. What Danny Bowien started as a pop-up in San Francisco in 2001 is now a bi-coastal New Chinese temple in New York and SF.
MCF’s menu is definitely more Chinese-inspired than actual Chinese, and the restaurant is the pinnacle of a growing style of fusion attempting to recreate dishes with a modern twist, rather than just infusing Asian ingredients into otherwise European dishes. The staggering menu includes items like Chongqing chicken wings and Sichuan pickled vegetable platter alongside experiments like kung pao pastrami and Malaysian beef jerky fried rice.
Chefs Jonathan Wu, formerly of Per Se, and Wilson Tang, the second-generation owner of Chinatown dim sum institution Nom Wah Tea Parlor, teamed up to open this restaurant that isn't afraid to embrace the 'American' part of American-Chinese food.
It doesn't take more than one look at the menu to see that this is a duo that enjoys experimentation. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than with the restaurant's China-quiles, a play on the classic Mexican breakfast dish that swaps tortilla chips for yucca chips, and salsa and cheese for what essentially amounts to mapo doufu with smoky steamed eggs instead of tofu. The whole thing is smothered in Sichuan pork sauce.
But look pretty much anywhere else and it's more of the same playful creativity: Sichuan guacamole, duck-stuffed dates, foie gras bao, and scallion pancake with clam cream sauce, bacon and chilies, to name just a few items.
In a city obsessed with Chinese, ramen and Thai, there’s not a great number of excellent Vietnamese restaurants, and diners are unfamiliar with the cuisine beyond pho and banh mi. Chef and co-owner Jimmy Tu is trying to change that with a mix of Vietnamese classics like banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake) and bo kho (oxtail stew) and inventive takes on traditional dishes, like a banh mi fried catfish with shallot mayo, as well as papaya salad with homemade beef jerky and crab chip.
The menu has a heavy focus on fresh organic ingredients, serving only pasture-raised meat and wild seafood, and going so far as growing their own mushrooms. The vibe at Bunker is like tropics meets Brooklyn: an industrial space with exposed brick and factory windows, decorated with thatched-roof bamboo bar, colorful plastic stools and paper lanterns.
Pok Pok Ny
Culinary cultural appropriation has become a hot topic in the last couple years. It’s a subject that is complex and difficult, but it's generally agreed upon that if any chef who is cooking food from an adopted culture is doing it right, it’s Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker, who became so obsessed with Thai food that he moved to Thailand to learn everything he could about authentic Thai cooking.
The result, at both Portland’s Pok Pok and New York’s Pok Pok Ny, is a restaurant that successfully recreates the experience of eating in Thailand, not just in terms of food, but in everything from the music on the radio to the metal cups to the fact that, unlike many Thai restaurants in New York, you eat your meal with a fork instead of chopsticks.
Pok Pok definitely raised the bar for New York's Thai food. Most of the dishes on the menu are northern and northeastern classics with notes and disclaimers such as "This version is very hot, fishy, salty, sour, not sweet. Order at own risk!" and "Da Chom is the 92 year old father of our friend Lakhana from Mae Rim, Chiang Mai, who first taught Andy how to make laap 20 years ago. This dish is in his honor, though not his exact recipe."
Walking into this Nolita Thai joint is like walking into another world, one of knick-knacks and oddities and faded photographs from long-ago Thailand. The thatched-roof bar, tiki-esque drinks and wooden tables are evocative of a little tropical paradise.
Several recipes come directly from the family of Ann Redding, who runs the restaurant along with Matt Danzer (both of whom worked at Per Se). Uncle Boons shares Pok Pok's passion for quality, flavor and technique, but without its obsession with 'authenticity.' Redding and Danzer aren't afraid to mess with tradition a little bit – like serving sweetbreads with mee krob or massive pork ribs that are reminiscent of just about nothing you'd ever find in Thailand.
You really can't go wrong with anything on the menu here, but highlights include spicy rotisserie chicken and banana blossom salad with a roasted chili dressing, and crab fried rice with egg, cilantro and lime.
You can basically travel the world without leaving the five boroughs of New York City. With a myriad of ethnic enclaves and endless food options, the restaurants of New York offer culinary and cultural gateways to the rest of the world. But until very recently, experiencing the food of Laos wasn’t much of an option. Then Soulayphet Schwader (in partnership with Marc Forgione and Nick Bradley) came along and changed that with Khe-Yo.
The menu is more mash-up than traditional Laotian, with dishes like Berkshire pork spareribs with smashed long beans and cherry tomatoes, and wok-seared lobster (hard to find in landlocked Laos) and noodles with yu choy and Thai basil. But the fish-sauce-and-spice-heavy sauces represent the flavor of Schwader’s home country.