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Xiao Ye: Lick Up Those Poontang Potstickers

Eddie Huang deals in Cheeto-fried chicken and liquid crack

Eddie Huang is good at getting your attention. Rare is the chef who will speak his mind, but Huang has no censor. His blog, Fresh Off the Boat, might make you love him, hate him, or both, with its lists of restaurants that suck (Rickshaw, Wo Hop) and don't (Szechuan Gourmet, Kunjip), its sundry rants about the Lower East Side and foodies, and his disarmingly honest responses to reviewers. He's almost as good at getting himself talked about as he is at cooking. The 28-year-old opened his first restaurant, Baohaus, an excellent Taiwanese steamed-bun joint, less than a year ago. This summer, he launched his first sit-down restaurant, Xiao Ye, which means "midnight snack," though he's just as likely to refer to it as "Dericious," a kind of alter ego.

Since Huang blogs so much, it's been possible to follow every moment of Xiao Ye's young life. There was its genesis as "Crackhaus," a name that did not please the community board, its opening as a Taiwanese night market–inspired place, the mixed reviews, and now its current theme, which Huang calls American-born Chinese diner food.

What does that mean? It's lowbrow treats like Cheeto-fried chicken and gochujang grilled cheese alongside classics like Hainanese chicken and rice, a combination mainly invented as Huang goes along. Or, as he puts it, "Most of the menu is the result of getting dumb toasted and shopping at my corner bodega for groceries." The dishes are offered in small, medium, and large sizes, though many of the supposedly small ones are actually big enough to share among four. Everything is family-style and prices are fair: $6–$10 for small, $10–$13 for medium, and $16–$18 for large portions.

Huang oversees his "American-born Chinese diner" food.
Caleb Ferguson
Huang oversees his "American-born Chinese diner" food.

Xiao Ye is a little cave of a place, its black walls decorated with Huang's personal photos and dribbles of multicolored paint. One early Monday night, Huang puttered around the sidewalk out front in a T-shirt printed with Biggie Smalls lyrics, and the bartender was heard to exclaim, "Brooklyn's definitely got the food shit on lockdown." (So there, Jeffrey Steingarten.) An Obama bobblehead doll nodded at us from the bar. When we asked the waitress what the caffeinated alco-pop Four Loco was, she consulted her watch. "What time is it? It's liquid crack. You probably don't want it right now—it's better for the weekend." After reading up on its sugary, amphetamine-like qualities, I decided she was right. She was also capable in other ways—spacing out our ridiculously large order into well-timed courses.

Huang has a serious knack with meat—ground pork, in particular. Poontang potstickers (I told you he was good at getting attention) have delicate wrappers nicely seared on one side, but their real draw is the dripping mix of minced pork and cabbage within. Princeton Review bean-paste noodles stars a dark ragu of ground pork, minced mushrooms, and fermented bean sauce that is so deeply savory, such a delicious umami-bomb, that I truly didn't care that our noodles in the bottom of the bowl were stone-cold and still stuck together. More pig comes along in "Taiwan's most famous pork on rice," a small bowl of white rice topped with an aromatic ground-meat stew flavored with five-spice powder and Sichuan peppercorns.

Another Taiwanese porcine standby, pork chops, shows up brined in Apple Sidra, a fruity Taiwanese soda, and served with giant rolls of fried mantou bread. Huang offers that bread at Baohaus too, but last I had it, the mantou were julienned and served like French fries, so that you got a restrained hit of the sweet, starchy, oil-soaked treats. As whole buns, the preparation is just too much, greasier and more leaden than fairground fried dough. Those accompanying chops, though, win you over with a tender, glazed-ham-like quality. Even the best vegetable features a bit of pork fat—chile-seasoned cabbage steamed until limpid and then drizzled with lardo.

Other fine dishes include the pillowy fried tofu drenched in what tastes like a mix of Sriracha, mayo, and peanut butter; the General Poke-Her Face Prawns, with head-on shrimp that are terrific crunched whole; and that Hainanese chicken and rice, which is perfectly moist and white, and comes with the traditional chicken-broth-saturated, gingery rice.

In the creative whirl, a few details get neglected. It's a novel and bright idea to slather grilled corn in unagi sauce, that sticky potion that lacquers broiled eel at sushi bars. But someone forgot about the corn itself, which was more starchy than sweet, though corn was smack in season at the time. As for that Cheeto-fried chicken, I never thought I'd say this, but it could use more Cheeto flavor.

And some of the cocktails seem more like party tricks than anything you'd actually want to drink. Rum mixed with Hawaiian punch has a dude-remember-college thing going on. And many of the other concoctions are so teeth-clenchingly sweet you'd have to be drunk already to enjoy them, including one made with green tea, bourbon, and what tasted like half a bottle's worth of vanilla extract. If that's not for you, stick to beer.

For all his jokey posturing, Huang seems to give serious thought to the challenges (and opportunities) of being a second-generation chef—wanting to cook up something new without neglecting the teachings of tradition or finding himself in the crosshairs of authenticity fetishists. "It's not Taiwanese, it's not American, it's mother fucking Dericious," Huang wrote on his blog. And most of the time, he's right.

sdigregorio@villagevoice.com

 
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