Restaurant Review: A Home for Taiwanese Food, Lard and All, at Wenwen

The Taiwanese restaurant 886 doesn’t stay open particularly late by the standards of its neighborhood, the East Village. Even on weekends, it closes at midnight. Still, drenched in purple neon, with most of its seating on stackable plastic stools, it looks like a place where you go in the portion of the evening when errors in judgment get made.

This is, after all, a restaurant that offers a drink called the Bad Idea Challenge, a midsize punch bowl filled with a cherry-colored mixture of wine, soju, sake and Red Bull. The challenge: If two people armed with standard drinking straws (or one person with a bubble-tea straw) can drain the bowl in six seconds or under, they are rewarded with more alcohol, in the form of two sake bombs.

A few months ago in Brooklyn, the owners of 886 opened a second Taiwanese restaurant, Wenwen. Everything about it suggests that the partners, Eric Sze and Andy Chuang, are settling down.

Wenwen opened in March in the north end of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.Credit…Sarah Kobos for The New York Times
From left, Eric Sze is the chef and an owner with Andy Chuang, the manager. Kathy Chen is the head chef.Credit…Sarah Kobos for The New York Times

Wenwen has real chairs at the tables and minimalist track lights that illuminate a sober wall of exposed brick. It is true that one of the cocktails, the Shyboy, is essentially an improved Long Island Iced Tea. (To be clear, almost any change to the original Long Island Iced Tea is an improvement.) It is also true that the Shyboy can be ordered in a “4XL” size, served in a glass about the size of the one Ina Garten drank her quarantine Cosmopolitans from. It is additionally true that the Shyboy 4XL has been priced at $69. And, like the Bad Idea Challenge, it arrives with a flaming chunk of youtiao bobbing on the surface inside a lime shell.

But there are important differences. There is no time limit on how long you have to finish the plus-size Shyboy and, if you do, your only reward will be the satisfaction of a job well done. In context, this has to be seen as a giant step toward adulthood.

It is not the only sign of maturity at Wenwen, which has been in business on the north end of Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint since March. The restaurant has a much larger and better-equipped kitchen than 886 does and Mr. Sze, the chef, makes considered use of it.

Mr. Sze takes advantage of a kitchen larger than the one at his other restaurant, 886.Credit…Sarah Kobos for The New York Times

Among his more elaborate preparations is something called BDSM Chicken. Settle down, class — it stands for Brined, Boneless, Soy-Marinated. Because it has been widely publicized, I know that BDSM chicken is fried with its feet intact. But because the handful of birds made each night sell out within 10 minutes or so of the restaurant’s opening its doors at 5 p.m., I don’t know what it tastes like.

I can, though, talk about another of Mr. Sze’s project recipes: the whole farm-raised striped bass. The bones are removed and something new, a filling of fish paste, is introduced to the fish’s cavity. The paste has the airy, slightly bouncy consistency familiar to fans of Chinese fish balls, and it quickly soaks up the sauce that surrounds the bass, salty and sour and nearly black with fermented beans.

Lard lurks in that fish paste. Lard runs through a lot of the food, which is a great thing to be able to say about a Taiwanese restaurant in New York. Wenwen doesn’t whip out the pork fat for shock value or to scare off the vegetarians. (Its use is noted matter-of-factly at the bottom of the menu, along with a request to “please let us know if a substitute is needed.”) Mr. Sze seems to cook with it because it belongs in the food he is serving at least as much as five-spice powder and sesame oil. Good lard is less a flavor than a state of mind.

Stir-fried pea shoots and tofu skins taste more intense than they sound.Credit…Sarah Kobos for The New York Times

Apart from the stuffed bass, the menu doesn’t specify which dishes contain lard. A few recipes are already so prodigal in their use of pork that a little extra fat would be hard to notice. The steamed rice in Wenwen’s lo ba beng is covered with pickled mustard greens and pork belly that was braised in sweet soy and a little peanut butter until the boundaries between meat and sauce have been erased.

Like many young Asian American chefs who came of age in the Momofuku era, Mr. Sze and Kathy Chen, who as head chef is in charge of the kitchen from day to day, look for ways to intensify flavors when appropriate. I wouldn’t say they cook in all caps, but they know when to use boldface and italics for emphasis.

Wilted pea shoots and thin handkerchiefs of tofu skin have a crackling energy that may not be fully explained by the garlic and Shaoxing wine they’re stir-fried with. Cucumber wedges marinated with pineapple juice and vinegar until they start to go pale and soft — if they were served with a pastrami sandwich, you’d call them half-sours — are saturated with the untamed flavor of raw garlic. Sichuan peppercorns, both ground and made into an oil, coat strands of vinegar-dressed celtuce until it feels as if electrons were kickboxing on your tongue.

Popcorn chicken is flavored by fried basil and what the kitchen calls Taiwan dust.Credit…Sarah Kobos for The New York Times

Somewhere in the kitchen is a jar of what Mr. Sze calls Taiwan dust. A blend of salt, sugar, white pepper and MSG, Taiwan dust has the ability to override conscious volition and make you reach for another bite before you know you’re doing it. It is terrific sprinkled over little slabs of fried tofu and helps make Mr. Sze’s popcorn chicken, which he imported from 886 with minor changes, one of New York’s most compelling plates of fried chicken. (If you arrive too late for a BDSM chicken, as you almost certainly will, it can be your consolation prize.)

These and other dishes can reset your palate such that quieter items can register as lacking something. I wanted the sauce for Wenwen’s rendition of three-cup chicken to be more concentrated, and wished the shot of vinegar in cold sesame noodles had been stronger.

If you are looking for an understated dessert, you have come to the wrong Taiwanese restaurant. Wenwen makes just one, and it is covered with chopped cilantro. Many other things are on the plate, too, including fried sticky rice balls, a dark pool black-sesame paste, peanut butter made into a powder and scoops of vanilla ice cream.

They are all very nice together. But the cilantro is what made me want to finish the whole thing, even if it took me longer than six seconds.

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