From the much anticipated Ivan Ramen to current staples like Pok Pok and Xi’an Famous Food, Asian street food has been taking over the New York City culinary scene. Jason Wang, co-owner of harbinger Xi’an says he has “to give credit to the food culture of New York and how everyone is becoming more open-minded about things” for its rise in popularity. “People are more into enjoying different things and trying different tastes.”
With that open mindset, Korean, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese have surged in popularity in NYC, not only because the flavors prove so bold and different than basic American, Italian or Mediterranean cuisine, but also because they are being offered in a relatively economic format.
“People are hungry. People work hard. They might not be able to afford a vacation to the Philippines or Laos or Vietnam, but I bet they can afford a subway ticket and dinner,” says Nicole Ponseca, co-owner of Filipino restaurants Maharlika and Jeepney. “Good food has the power to transport.” With those wise words, New Yorkers have begun to take the journey.
The beginning of Asian street food for the masses started in 2006 with the opening of David Shi’s Xi’an Famous Foods in Flushing. Back then, only the Chinese population of its Queens neighborhood and food-focused explorers made their way to the Golden Shopping Mall to eat at Shi’s shop. Over time, however, the word spread, and soon lines went out the door. So, Shi, along with his son Jason Wang — who is now the spokesman for the mini-chain — opened another location in 2009 in the Flushing Mall. From there, they continued to open and close Xi’an Famous Foods all over Manhattan (there’s a soon-to-be-open Upper West Side shop) and in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint (multiple locations, see xianfoods.com), giving much of NYC a taste of Xi’an, a city in western China’s Shaanxi Province.
“I think expansion forces us to reevaluate ourselves each time we open a restaurant,” said Wang, who credits his success to creating an artisanal product that is affordable and approachable. “We are taking this complicated cuisine and presenting it like street food.” With six stores including the sister restaurant, Biang!, customers from all over the city flock to eat the famous spicy cumin lamb burger, handmade cold skin noodles, spicy and tingly beef with hand-ripped noodles and the lamb face salad.
While Xi’an Famous Foods brought Asian street eats to the masses, BaoHaus made the food cool to eat. Opened in 2009, owner Eddie Huang ran his first Taiwanese-Chinese bun joint in the Lower East Side, and at the time, this institution garnered a large following. The original location moved, with an expanded menu in 2011, to Union Square (238 E. 14th St., 646-669-8889, baohausnyc.com). This spot is still going strong and serves up Huang’s iconic cheap eats including Chairman Bao, a classic pork belly bun, Birdhaus Bao, hormone-free chicken brined and fried in a bun, and an array of rice bowls, all under $12. Part of what made Baohaus so successful is Huang himself, who has a rapper-meets-chef vibe and famously voices options on everything from eating out to music to fashion on his blog, Fresh Off the Boat, which is also the title of his Vice show and his memoir.
Vietnamese-born Michael Bao Huynh also belongs in the pioneers category. He, like Huang, capitalized on the bao craze and opened a series of cheap Asian joints in the city, all cleverly named. This repertoire includes the now-closed BaoBQ and Pho Sure and a string of Baoguettes, which serve classic Vietnamese bahn mi. Now, only two Baoguettes remain, one in Murray Hill (61 Lexington Ave., 212-532-1133, baoguette.com) and Wall Street (75 Nassau St., 212-510-8787), but they’re still good for inexpensive shrimp summer rolls, catfish sandwich and the namesake Sloppy Bao sandwich, made with spicy curry beef, green mango, basil and lemongrass.
The Game Changers
While Xi’an Famous Foods, Baohaus, and Baoguette laid the groundwork for cheap and popular Asian street food, Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok NY (127 Columbia St., 718-923-9322, pokpokny.com) really brought the trend home, and he upped the ante too. The Thai eatery, which started as a shack in Portland, Ore., opened in Brooklyn’s somewhat secluded Columbia Street waterfront district in 2012. Even though it’s a 10 to 15 minute walk from the nearest subway, throngs of people have been making a pilgrimage to the restaurant to sample Ricker’s carefully executed, authentic and highly addictive Thai dishes. Even after a year, you’ll have to get there early to score a table, or be prepared to wait up to two hours — even in the rain — for a seat in this snug, Southeast Asian street-themed restaurant. The good news for drinkers is that you can now wait in relative comfort at Ricker’s Whiskey Soda Lounge down the street (115 Columbia St., 718-797-4120), which opened in August 2013.
Another game-changer also came as a West Coast import: Mission Chinese (154 Orchard St., 212-529-8800, missionchinesefood.com) in the Lower East Side. Danny Bowien’s modern Chinese “take-out” joint started inside a cheap Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. Touted as “hip Chinese food” by many of Bowien’s critics, the young chef started making Szechuan-style eats as a way to counteract the fine dining establishments in which he and his fellow food-lovers had been working. “We are trying to make something that appeals to us and is something we want to eat on our day off,” Bowien says. “You want something that’s approachable that you can go to every day.”
In fact, Mission Chinese has proved so approachable that, like Pok Pok, eaters start putting their name on the waitlist as soon as the restaurant opens, eager to get a cozy table in the 20 to 30 seat establishment and start the tongue tingling gastronomic journey one finds with Bowien’s mapo tofu, Szechuan peppercorn-laced wings, Mongolian long beans, and kung pao pastrami. The good news is that the restaurant now delivers in Manhattan below 59th Street. The bad news is that it was closed by the DOH on Nov. 4, 2013 for violations and will reopen soon.
Now, when people think of Asian street food, Filipino cuisine doesn’t immediately come to mind. But, once you step in the year-old Jeepney (201 First Ave., 212-533-4121, jeepneynyc.com) in the East Village, you will understand how these dishes fit in. “Filipino food works because it’s exotic, but it’s also the ultimate Asian soul food,” says Ponseca, adding that, classically, this cuisine meshes Spanish, Chinese and Malaysian influences. Popular dishes include the Chori burger, a street burger found on the island of Boracay, a whole fried dish of the day called Dampa Fry, which Ponseca says gets named after the street markets in the country, and the Bicol Express, a slow-roasted pork shoulder in coconut milk, sili and bagoong sauce with vigan longganisa, pickled chilis and baby bok choy, which is an ode to the express train from Bicol to Manila. “Street, gourmand, whatever, there is a bigger interest in Asian food, period,” says Ponseca. “Maharlika [her other restaurant] and Jeepney work because they are thoughtful and honor Filipino flavors and ingredients while modernizing expectations on Filipino service and ambiance.” Of course, manners aside, Ponseca mentioned that the most popular event Jeepney hosts is Kamayan night, an evening dedicated to eating with your hands.
The New Guy
Taking a page from the already established Asian street food scene, the 65-seat Uncle Boons (7 Spring St., 646-370-6650, uncleboons.com) has put Asian street food on the NoLiTa map with its succulent Thai rotisserie and plates of Thai drinking food. As a married couple, co-owners and chefs, Matt Danzer and Ann Redding cook dishes inspired from Redding’s family in Thailand, including the popular muu tod (crispy pork belly with shrimp paste and sauces), yum mamoung (a green mango salad with avocado, shallots, crispy dried squid, crushed peanuts, chile and lime), massaman neuh (chopped lamb salad) and koong (charcoal-grilled head-on prawns). Given the gaggles of customers that barge the doors daily, something in the signature rotisserie chicken, or kai yang muay Thai, has hit home. Of course, one thing lacking in the Asian street food motif here, as well as the aforementioned places, is the actual street, but part of the appeal leans toward getting the cheap, flavorful eats while relaxing at a table in one of two dining rooms in Uncle Boons. Each space comes decked out with vintage Thai movie posters, traditional fabrics covering furniture, and a whole lot of pizzazz, a perfect match for the spicy, salty, meaty and umami-rich foods.
You can also get a sampling of Asian-inspired eats at Khe-Yo (157 Duane St., 212- 587-1089, kheyo.com), New York’s only Laotian restaurant to date. While the cozy, high-ceiling and exposed-brick space in TriBeCa might not exude a street-fare vibe that some of these other places do, there are some key elements on chef Soulayphet Schwader’s menu that tips a hat to this style of eating. For example, the pork belly and shrimp crispy rolls are akin to dishes found on the streets of Laos, as is the crunchy coconut rice and the sien-haeng, the restaurant’s version of Asian beef jerky.
Foodies have been anticipating the opening of Ivan Orkin’s Ivan Ramen (25 Clinton St., no phone, twitter.com/ivanramen) for months, and the word on the street is that it will finally open its doors in late November 2013, much to the excitement of ramen lovers. Orkin, a New Yorker who made a name for himself with a restaurant in Tokyo of the same name, also plans to have an outpost in the soon-to-be-opened Gotham West Market (predicted to open “soon”). But why all the hype? Well, like most Asian street food, ramen has a huge hold on New York and even as ramen shops pop up all over, big names like Orkin rule the scene.
Another important name in the ramen world is Yuji Haraguchi, who made waves in 2012 at the food bazaar Smorgasburg in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for his mazemen, a type of ramen made with less broth so it’s more of a noodle dish than a soup. After that, he moved his unique take on ramen to the Smorgasburg in Whole Foods in the Lower East Side (95 E Houston St., 2nd Fl., 212-420-1320, wholefoodsmarket.com), but his end goal has always been to open his own space, Yuji Ramen Omakase. Last February Haraguchi started a Kickstarter page to raise money for the future Williamsburg shop, and based the success of that campaign (the goal was met by 400 percent), fingers are crossed in the foodie world that it will open up soon.