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Japan’s and China’s Hottest Food Franchises Have Diners Lining Up in NYC

In America, the phrase chain restaurant doesn’t immediately inspire visions of a great meal. But across Asia, many chains are beloved institutions, with quality food, polished service, and legions of dedicated fans, such as those who stand in line for hours at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong for a taste of freshly baked pork buns.

In the past year, New York City has gotten its first taste of several of these famed Asian chains. Ichiran, an upmarket Japanese ramen operation famous for isolating diners in “flavor concentration booths,” opened in Bushwick in October; Ikinari Steak, a standing-only steakhouse in the East Village, followed in February. And TsuruTonTan, an udon chain that makes its own noodles, took over the former Union Square Café space last September. All were greeted with massive lines upon opening, of both international fans of their iterations in Japan and local foodies curious about the hype joining an established roster of Japanese chains that have already succeeded here, including the ramen chain Ippudo and set-menu specialists Ootoya.

Then there are the new arrivals from elsewhere in Asia: the “dim sum specialists” Tim Ho Wan, which spawned queues rivaling those in Hong Kong when it opened at Fourth Avenue and East 10th Street in December; Paik’s Noodle, a casual Korean noodle franchise in K-Town; PappaRich, a homestyle Malaysian chain that recently opened in Flushing; and the first American branch of Chinese restaurateur Zhu Rong’s Madam Zhu’s Kitchen, called Hao Noodle and Tea, in the West Village.

For many foreign restaurant groups, a successful New York outpost is considered a crown jewel, and every operation I spoke to reiterated some variation of the old if-you-can-make-it-here adage: “If you can succeed in New York City, everything else is downhill,” says Tony Chan, the general manager at Tim Ho Wan.

Why now? A combination of factors: The ramen boom a few years ago, fueled by the success of Ippudo, helped pave the way for more Asian chains to broach the American market, as has the increasing ease of travel between East and West. And American appetites have shifted, too, particularly in cosmopolitan cities like New York, where we’re now more willing to embrace, say, spicy or sour regional Chinese food in addition to the sweet-and-gloopy takeout stuff.

While many chains are expanding rapidly across Asia, most of the new arrivals spent years preparing to open here, studying the American market and navigating New York’s fickle commercial real estate landscape. The owners of Ichiran spent nearly nine years seeking the perfect space for their flagship restaurant and noodle factory before ending up on an industrial block in northwest Bushwick.

Some restaurateurs, like Zhu of Hao Noodle and Tea, developed an almost entirely new menu to appeal to Western tastes; others, like Tim Ho Wan, made subtle tweaks to their standard offerings, such as cutting the offal dishes and adding more vegetarian-friendly options. “We’ve noticed that New Yorkers like to order anything with uni or wagyu,” says Joji Uematsu, VP at Dining Innovation New York, the restaurant group that owns TsuruTonTan; the udon chain has adjusted its menus over time to cater to local palates, cutting back on cold udons, for example, which don’t sell as well in New York, and adding more spicy options, which do.

It remains to be seen which of these operations will ultimately thrive, but the ones that offer a unique experience are perhaps the most worthwhile for jaded New York diners who think they’ve seen it all. Here’s a quick guide to some of the most high-profile recent openings:

ICHIRAN
This Fukuoka-based chain specializes in one thing only: pork-based tonkotsu ramen, served to customers as they sit in individually partitioned “flavor concentration booths,” so diners can focus solely on the noodle soup in front of them, sans distraction. Taking specialization a step even further, the shop also allows patrons to specify how rich they’d like their broth and how firm they’d like their noodles. It might sound gimmicky, but the hyper-focus pays off: Ichiran’s ramen is heady, balanced, and deeply satisfying.
374 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn

IKINARI STEAK
This steakhouse first opened in Tokyo just four years ago, and has since exploded to more than 120 locations throughout Japan, thanks to its premium meat and affordable prices: Diners order by weight from three cuts of beef, then their selections are grilled rare and delivered on sizzling cast-iron platters to booths where customers eat while standing; steaks run eight to eleven cents a gram, with a minimum of 200g per order. As at Ichiran, the shtick succeeds by delivering an undeniably high-quality finished product. The East Village location is virtually identical to the Japanese ones, and founder Kunio Ichinose has said he wants to open twenty more outlets in Manhattan in
the next five years.
90 East 10th Street, Manhattan

TsuruTonTan’s “Udon Noodle Brasserie.”
TsuruTonTan’s “Udon Noodle Brasserie.”

TSURUTONTAN
Billing itself as an “Udon Noodle Brasserie,” this upscale chain hopes to capitalize on ramen’s American success by introducing U.S. diners to thick, springy udon noodles (made in-house) with a variety of broths and toppings that goes way beyond your standard takeout joint. While there are well-executed traditional tempura and seafood options for udon newbies, TsuruTonTan really shines when playing with newfangled flavor combinations like mentaiko caviar and truffle creme with crab and mushroom. Skip the non-noodle offerings, though, which try too hard (tofu burrata?) and generally fall flat.
21 East 16th Street, Manhattan

TIM HO WAN
Billed as “the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant,” this Hong Kong dim sum import, with 45 locations around the world, landed in the East Village this winter to three-hour waits for their signature pork buns and steamed rice rolls. The menu is smaller and less adventurous than serious dim sum fans may be accustomed to, and Chinatown regulars won’t find much that justifies the wait. But dim sum beginners and out-of-town visitors may appreciate the accessible vibe: Diners order off a checklist (as opposed to from carts), and every dish is cooked to order.
85 Fourth Avenue, Manhattan

HAO NOODLE AND TEA BY MADAM ZHU’S KITCHEN
Zhu Rong runs successful Madam Zhu’s locations in several of China’s major cities, but found the Chinese food scene in New York lacking in cosmopolitan flair — restaurants here were either too downscale or too traditional, she felt, and so she built one that reflects a more modern, multicultural China. The menu at her artfully decorated West Village outpost is tailored to Western palates, but far from sterilized, with a mix of regional Chinese dishes and global influences. Standouts include silky-smooth handmade dan dan noodles slicked with chili oil and ground Sichuan peppercorn, and seared beef medallions (made from filet mignon) with candied walnuts and crispy garlic.
401 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan

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This Week in Food: Tattoos, Tequila, Dim Sum Dinner, and Free Beer

Dim Sum Dinner
Vic’s (31 Great Jones Street)
Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Chefs from Cookshop, Rosie’s, Hundred Acres, and Vic’s are teaming up for a special, one-night-only dim sum dinner. The traditional cart service includes dishes like labne with flatbread, crab with green chiles, and monkfish cheeks poached in brown butter. Dinner is $68 per person (tax and gratuity not included). Reservations can be made by contacting Vic’s.

Kosher USA Book Talk
American Jewish Historical Society (15 West 16th Street)
Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Learn about the history of kosher food and taste some Passover treats from Breads Bakery. Author Roger Horowitz will discuss Kosher USA, a book that details, among other things, Coca-Cola’s and Jell-O’s attempts to break into the kosher-food world. Tickets are $10 for general admission, which includes sweets like cupcakes and chocolates. RSVP here.

Tattoos & Tequila Pop-Up
Burger & Lobster (39 W 19th Street)
Wednesday, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Looking to show off some new ink this spring? Burger & Lobster has a free tattoo promotion just for you. Guests who get the Burger & Lobster logo (size restrictions apply) tattooed somewhere on their body will receive a free tequila shot… plus free food and drink at the restaurant for the remainder of 2016. Tattoo artists from Rising Dragon Tattoo Parlor will be on site, so you can get your ink and freebies right away.

Top of the List Tasting
The Vine Event Space (851 Avenue of the Americas)
Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Grab a glass of wine from some of America’s top producers — including California’s Cakebread and Silver Oak wineries — at this walk-around tasting. Then, feast on bites from restaurants like Tía Pol, Gramercy Tavern, and Casa Mono, among others. General admission tickets start at $85 and include unlimited wine tasting, food, and a one-year subscription to Wine & Spirits. Reserve your spot here.

Beer and Popcorn Pop-Up
Gild Hall (15 Gold Street)
Friday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Need to make a pit stop between flicks at the Tribeca Film Festival? Grab some complimentary Pipcorn popcorn and Bira (choose from the white ale or blonde lager) at Gild Hall this Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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Exclusive: Tim Ho Wan — the World’s Cheapest Michelin-Starred Restaurant — Opening in New York City

Mak Kwai Pui is exhausted. The Hong Kong chef and restaurateur has spent the past few months rapidly expanding his empire of casual dim sum parlors across Southeast Asia, with no end in sight. See, Mak operates Tim Ho Wan — the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant — and now he’s coming for the rest of the world.

Last month, he opened the second Australian outpost of Tim Ho Wan in Melbourne. Next month, his third location in Thailand arrives. Come summer, the restaurant empire spreads to South Korea. And this September, Mak will tackle the United States, opening a Tim Ho Wan in the former Spice space on 10th Street and Fourth Avenue in the East Village.

Tim Ho Wan’s fall opening will mark Mak’s first visit to New York City. When setbacks befell plans to open a spot in Hawaii — originally intended as the restaurant’s first U.S. location — the New York project took priority.

“We’re headhunting now for a dim sum chef. It should be a local Chinese face,” says Mak. While there was already a chef in mind for the Hawaii location, Mak stresses that each outpost needs a toque who better understands the local market. “[That chef] doesn’t know New York, but in Hawaii he knows everything.”

Prompted by the Michelin stars, there are often hours-long lines of out-of-towners at Tim Ho Wan’s Hong Kong locations — where Mak originally intended to feed locals at bargain prices. Mak tells the Voice that his designs on the U.S. involve appealing to the culinary tourists who seek his food abroad.

Prawn dumplings at Tim Ho Wan, where diners rinse their chopsticks in tea and paper placemats dictate the aesthetic
Prawn dumplings at Tim Ho Wan, where diners rinse their chopsticks in tea and paper placemats dictate the aesthetic

In 2009, Mak left Lung King Heen — a three-starred Cantonese restaurant at Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel — to open the original Tim Ho Wan in a Kowloon neighborhood. When rent rose thanks to gentrification, Mak moved the restaurant rather than raise prices. Six years after earning his first Michelin star, little has changed.

Steamer baskets of plump prawn dumplings, Mak’s signature trio of baked buns stuffed with barbecue pork, and Chinese-sausage-stuffed glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf all remain under $5. Even now, the tissues within the boxes placed atop each table serve as napkins. Meanwhile, diners still choose dishes pictured on a paper placemat, fill out their checks with pencils, and rinse their chopsticks in cups of hot tea. “I don’t think about money,” Mak says. “But maybe the investors think about money.”

If lines out the door aren’t already profitable enough, the New York Tim Ho Wan will also have a liquor license. While the menu will continue to be strictly limited to dim sum, the menu will grow over time and add more dishes appealing to American appetites, including “high quality beef dishes.” Menus at Tim Ho Wan’s international outposts have already evolved to appease regional palates and customs. Most recently, Mak has experimented with dim sum using chicken in lieu of pork to serve local Muslim populations. If it succeeds, the restaurant’s kitchen will seek halal certification.

After expanding to the States, Mak hopes to finally turn his attention to mainland China — the one market that continues to elude him. “Someone else has registered the name Tim Ho Wan in China,” he says. “But the name is not important. People trust me, and when I say it’s my cooking — it’s mine.”

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Jue Lan Club Mixes Keith Haring and Modern Dim Sum in Former Limelight Space

Although Andy Warhol’s culinary proclivities were limited to pop art paintings of bananas and Campbell’s soup, his presence, among other artists like Keith Haring, are as essential to Jue Lan Club (49 West 20th Street; 646-524-7409) as its dim sum menu. As its decor and artwork make clear, the new restaurant housed within the former Limelight nightclub (from the team of executive chef/partner Oscar Toro and partner Stratis Morfogen) aims to reacquaint New Yorkers with an iconic space, as well as tempt them with edgy, modern Chinese cuisine.

“As a restaurateur, as a passionate hospitality entrepreneur, it’s once-in-a-lifetime that you get an iconic property in this location, Morfogen tells the Voice. Morfogen’s experience in building notable global restaurant brands such as Philippe Chow has taught him what to look for in a space. “Limelight just gave me everything,” Morfogen says. The movement to create restaurants with a notable scene is a firmly established one, which is why the building’s long history as a music venue lent itself to a rebirth.

Many of the original elements of the former church, which was built in the 1840’s, were left untouched, including the stained glass windows and exposed brick walls. While other concepts have opened and closed in parts of the building since Limelight closed its doors in 2007, the area Jue Lan Club now occupies had been left empty. There are multiple private rooms — including what was once Limelight owner Peter Gatien’s office – that are ideal for intimate group parties.

Morfogen and Toro decided that a modern Chinese menu would be perfect for the mix of art, cocktails, and fun that they were trying to create. After all, it’s hard to find the energy to stay out for a night on the town after diving into a bowl of pasta or plowing through a meal of deep fried chicken.

Dim sum offers bone marrow and prawn dumplings
Dim sum offers bone marrow and prawn dumplings

“Asian food in general compliments alcohol. That’s the key here. This is all about cocktails and light food,” Morfogen says. Toro, whose experience includes SushiSamba and Buddakan, is focused on showcasing a range of Chinese dishes, with a menu divided into raw, dim sum and noodle sections, as well as main courses such as filet mignon and a Peking-style duck.

“The one thing I wanted to do to distinguish ourselves from the pack was to be the first to do Chinese raw,” Morfogen explains. “It’s being done in Shanghai, and I haven’t found one restaurant in America doing it.” What does that look like? Think raw salmon with Chinese mustard, celery and blood orange vinaigrette and East coast oysters with longon and ginger-rice vinaigrette for starters.

Dim sum (which will also appear in weekend brunch) includes bone marrow and prawn dumplings; filet mignon with taro fries, tea smoked chicken, and salt and pepper lobster for two. Cocktails include a mix of classics like mai tais and corpse revivers, and new-school drinks like a grape crush made with lavender syrup, garnished with frozen grapes.

Grape crush cocktail
Grape crush cocktail

Jue Lan translates to “determination to create change.” That idea seeks to validate the concept of restaurants evolving to serve as all-in-one entertainment destinations. It also takes a page from Morfogen’s career: “Food and service to me are my new club kids — those are my promoters.”

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Why Chef Josh Eden Proclaims Dim Sum at RedFarm the Best in the City

Chef Josh “Shorty” Eden of August (791 Lexington Avenue; 212-935-1433) is a native New Yorker, and he’s spent his life hunting down amazing local eats. He worked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten for twelve years, and spent time in China’s biggest cities before working with several Chinese concepts here at home. So he takes Chinese food seriously. And with confidence, he proclaims the dim sum from chef Joe Ng at RedFarm (529 Hudson Street; 212-792-9700) to be the best thing he ate this past month…which he did on quite a regular basis.

“Being a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, I have a certain affinity for Chinese food. My mother taught a lot of Chinese students at Washington Irving High School, and many of their parents had restaurants, so I grew up eating all Chinese food around and consider myself somewhat of an aficionado. I also spent time working on my own Chinese concepts and have spent time in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Around the city, I go to certain Chinese restaurants for certain things, and for dim sum I go to RedFarm.

“Chef Joe Ng is the most talented dim sum chef in New York, no question. I’ve been eating his food since he worked in a restaurant on Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn, and I can say confidently that he’s the most talented dim sum chef we have. He makes all of his own dough, and it shows. His cuisine is super progressive overall; the Katz’s Pastrami Egg Roll is amazing.

“The crab and pork soup dumplings are incredibly traditional but also so well made. In general, soup dumplings are pretty challenging to make because the filling and dough both need to be just right so that you can handle them. Many people don’t know how to eat a soup dumpling the right way: you put one on a spoon, poke a hole in the top, pour in your ginger and vinegar, suck out the juice, and then eat the dumpling, rather than just putting the whole thing in your mouth at once. To be able to do that, the dough has to be thick enough and the filling has to be worthy. Joe’s are beyond superior.

“To reconfirm how much I love them: I went a month ago and then went back two nights ago just to have them again. If you want fantastic dim sum, RedFarm beats anywhere else in the city.”

Where do chefs go to eat on their nights off? We’re asking them — and they’re divulging the best things they’ve eaten in the last month in this weekly column. 

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A Taste of the Teahouse Treats at Windsor Terrace’s East Wind Snack Shop

Chef Chris Cheung has cooked his way through numerous New York City restaurant kitchens over the past two decades. As a line cook, he landed a spot on Nobu’s launch team and worked under Wylie Dufresne during the pioneer’s tenure at Jean-Georges. Later, he ran the short-lived Almond Flower Bistro in Chinatown and the Hotel Elysee’s Monkey Bar. Last month, the Chinatown-raised progressive-Chinese chef opened East Wind Snack Shop (471 16th Street, Brooklyn; 929-295-0188), bringing elevated homemade dim sum and small plates to Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood he’s called home during most of his career.

Dry-aged beef dumplings
Dry-aged beef dumplings

Tucked into a shoebox-sized space near the 15th Street F/G station, East Wind represents a tonal shift for Cheung. Having worked primarily in fine dining, he found inspiration in Chinatown’s once populous teahouses (Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street being an archetype of the genre), and the relaxed environs suited him just fine. From narrow, open cooking quarters overlooking a small dining room splashed in red and white, Cheung fries up greaseless vegetable spring rolls and steams flashy foie-gras-filled bao buns, tempering the luxury offal with sweet soy and scallions. The dough is made from scratch. Chewy and dense, it works great with the liver but drags down a pork belly bao garnished with hoisin sauce, herbs, and peanuts.

Sweet chili ribs
Sweet chili ribs

Given the standard of quality and care Cheung puts into his dishes (which manager Albert Kang mimics up front), the fact that he’s able to keep the menu firmly in “cheap eats” territory comes as a relief. You won’t find five-for-a-dollar dumplings, but the five pork dumplings ($5) you do get here exhibit that delicious textural dichotomy of juicy innards and crackled exteriors. A beef version of the thin-skinned orbs costs a couple dollars extra, but they’re stuffed with supple, dry-aged meat that packs in noticeable bovine funk — a treat to pair with standard accoutrements like hot and soy sauces. Most of the food arrives in cardboard baskets lined with wax paper, but that’s a fine compromise when prices top out at $12 for a pile of sweet, sticky chili-sauce-slathered ribs served with rice and pickles. Vegetarian diners with appetites can follow those spring rolls with an order of stir-fried “Happy Buddha” vegetables.

Interior
Interior

For dessert, try doughnut-like Hong Kong–style fritters dusted with lemon sugar, fried to order and perfect for pairing with hot or cold tea. The options are limited to chrysanthemum and bubble varieties, but just like at the establishments it pays homage to, the tea at this teahouse is sort of beside the point. The drinks soothe (or refresh) nonetheless.

It bears pointing out that Cheung is another in an increasing number of chefs who’ve abandoned exalted kitchens to serve their communities. East Wind Snack Shop readily excels in this regard, providing gentrifying Brooklyn with a casual, welcoming environment within which to sample Cheung’s largely excellent, gussied-up Chinese street food.

Pork belly bao
Pork belly bao
Dumplings
Dumplings
Spring rolls
Spring rolls
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What’s Happening: The Great CSA Smackdown, Last Day at Le Parker Meridien’s Gingerbread Extravaganza Closes

Thursday, January 3
Pie-Making Class at The Brooklyn Kitchen: Head to Williamsburg to learn how to make a mean pie from author and baker Millicent Souris. She’ll teach you the secret to making perfect crusts and for $65 students will leave with a crust and a mini pie to bake at home. 616 Lorimer St., Brooklyn

Gingerbread Extravaganza at Le Parker Meridien: You’ve seen the photos, but have you enjoyed the gingerbread masterpieces at this midtown hotel on a more intimate level, where you can smell and almost taste the delicious sweets? The exhibit closes on Thursday just in time for all the holiday tourists to get the hell out of New York City. See a detailed recreation of Abe Lincoln and even a sculpture called “Candy-Crane,” referencing the daunting crane that hung over 57th Street after Hurricane Sandy. 119 W 56th St.

Saturday, January 5
The Great CSA Smackdown: Join Just Food for a citywide cooking competition for members of the Just Food Network Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects. The free event at Saint Mark’s Church will feature CSA chefs cooking against one another to create a meal in 30 minutes. Get there at 2 p.m. to see all the action. 131 E 10th St.

Sunday, January 6
Dim Sum: Chinese Tea Brunch: Hit up the Bowery Culinary Center at Whole Foods Market on Houston Street for a hands-on demonstration and cooking class for the Dim Sum novice. For $60 you will hear from Culinary Center Educator Wai Chu and he’ll give a dim sum tutorial. 95 E Houston St.

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RedFarm Offers Takeout, Expands to UWS

Eclectic dim-sum joint RedFarm is now offering takeout for pick-up. The creation of Chinese food guru Ed Schoenfeld and dim-sum chef Joe Ng, the restaurant also announced via Twitter and the New York Times that they’ll enlarge their current location by taking over the laundromat downstairs and will add a bar and another communal table by this fall.

RedFarm is also expanding to the Upper West Side. They will be taking over Fatty Crab at 2170 Broadway.

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Spring Garden: New Contender for Brooklyn’s Best Dim Sum

Ja leung–a fried cruller wrapped in rice noodle–is wonderfully executed at Spring Garden.

Brooklyn has long led Manhattan and Flushing in the perfection of its dim sum. There are a half-dozen distinguished eating halls that provide the set of small dishes this meal entails with exemplary freshness and at bargain prices. Now a new contender looms on the horizon, perhaps providing the best dim sum in Brooklyn.

Opulent yet well lit, Spring Garden has yet to become a foodie destination.

Cantonese joint Spring Garden (sometimes styled New Spring Garden) is by no means new. But its location on 65th near Fort Hamilton Parkway has masked its greatness. It’s not really in Sunset Park’s Chinatown proper, though it’s located in a mainly Chinese industrial district that extends eastward from the neighborhood.

What’s more, it’s on the same street as East Harbor Seafood Palace, a well-known foodie destination celebrated for its dim sum quality.

A recent daytime visit showed the excellence of Spring Garden’s output, though we’re not yet prepared to declare it the winner for the entire borough. That visit was at 2 p.m., a time when most dim sum parlors are long out of most varieties. At that late hour, Spring Garden was going strong, and three of us ate our asses off for less than $10 apiece.

Here are a few of the plates we enjoyed.

The shrimp har gow are more elaborately turned out than usual, the wrappers so light as to be almost invisible.

These somewhat newfangled steamed-pork dumplings also incorporate diced vegetables, possibly in a nod to modern ideas about nutrition.

The pork riblets steamed with black beans called pie gwat here come with bonus cubes of pumpkin, improving the color range of the dish, at least.

Shanghai-style pork meatballs seasoned with orange zest

Hong Kong-style steamed rice with Chinese sausage

The tenderest soy-braised chicken feet you’ve ever tasted

By 3 p.m., the place has cleared out.

Spring Garden
912 65th Street
Dyker Heights, Brooklyn
718-680-2289

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Year of the Takeout Day 153: Empire BBQ Restaurant Inc. (Translation Help, PLEASE!)

Soy Sauce Chicken(?) from Empire BBQ Restaurant, Inc. (5805 8th Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 718-435-9692)

Year of the Takeout picked this place mainly because the window signage features a sea creature motif, which reminded us of The Little Mermaid — and who isn’t moved by Hans Christian Andersen?

YotT was then presented with two menus. Here’s a page from one of them:

We don’t read or speak Chinese — if you do, please let us know what’s on there — but were intrigued, so we pointed to a bunch of stuff and looked forward to a surprise!

Anyway, what came out was a masterfully light cuke salad; a lettuce, tomato, and onion salad topped with sweet mayo; and this chicken.

Texture wise, these fabulously fatty morsels feel like chicken adobo and taste similar, but more on the soy-sauce side than the vinegar end of the spectrum. A solid substitute for duck if your dining plans begin with bird.