A Bold Take on Taiwanese Street Food in East Williamsburg
A dreamy fifteen-foot mural by the artist Laura Bernstein hangs over one of the long black banquettes lining Win Son, Josh Ku and Trigg Brown's delightful Taiwanese-American canteen. The stretch of canvas depicts a zany Last Supper inhabited by a colorful cast — such as the person who's apparently brought a bowl of doctor fish to nibble on diners' feet. Even more captivating is the painting's perspective, which shows nearly everyone at the communal table from the neck down. The food in front of them is as much the focus as the people themselves, which is the vibe Ku, a Long Island native, and Brown — the chef, who hails from Virginia — have created at this otherwise unassuming East Williamsburg triumph.
Win Son began offering its porky menu in May after two-plus years under construction. Prior to the opening, Ku and Brown hosted pop-up dinners and visited with Ku's family in Taiwan, immersing themselves in the island nation's culture of street food and home cooking. Now Brown makes his engaging meals from behind a window framed in white subway tiles, next to the restaurant's lively backlit bar; the place hums with conviviality on the part of both the staff and customers.
Brown's dishes feel constructed for maximum fun. He serves eggplant fried piping hot and buried under chopped cashews and fresh herbs, riffing on the chilled, marinated version he enjoyed abroad. The bowl of crunchy nightshades comes drenched in black-vinegar caramel and, startlingly, labne kefir. ("One thing I learned in Taiwan: Everything's game," Brown says.) The dish is Win Son's sleeper hit, a donnybrook of flavors tied together by rich, tangy yogurt.
Ice cream sandwich
The kitchen also has a knack for stacking unexpected ingredients between bread. The questionably named "nutritious sandwich" — a stuffed pocket made of deep-fried sweet dough — was inspired by a ubiquitous dish created by a vendor in a Taiwanese night market. Here, the pleasantly squishy buns are filled with pickled pineapple, Black Forest ham, cilantro, and jalapeño peppers. Less of a head-scratcher is the "big chicken bun": The pineapple buns barely contain the gargantuan hunks of fried bird thigh. Brown imports fermented bean curd in chile paste to make a potent flavored mayonnaise that he slathers recklessly onto the bun. It's well worth the mess.
The restaurant's traditional Taiwanese dishes don't stray too far from their standard formulas, yet they still feel transformed. Fermented black beans impart a funky piquancy to the "flies head" — ground pork shoulder stir-fried with minced garlic chives — while the slightly doughy scallion pancakes arrive in an uneven row, rolled around tender grass-fed beef shanks and set off by a scattering of frizzled garlic. Lu rou fan is a modest rice bowl suffused with minced pork belly; Win Son's includes soy-sauce-braised eggs cooked soft and runny and a stalk of fermented Chinese broccoli that adds a salty snap to the whole affair.
Ku and Brown manage to keep prices reasonable. You'll only throw down a Lincoln for snacks like garlicky pickled cucumbers or five-spice-roasted peanuts, and a $16 plate of spicy fettuccine-like zhajiangmian egg noodles with lamb is the most expensive item on the menu. Cans of Taiwan Beer go for $4, while cocktails like the pickled-ramp gibson and a peanut-rum milk punch are between $9 and $12. Brown is responsible for one of the most laudable drinks, the cheekily named chiña colada, which mixes coconut cream, rum, cilantro, and basil.
Win Son's lone dessert is a $7 ice cream sandwich that's essentially an amped-up, Americanized take on the classic Chinese and Taiwanese pairing of doughnuts and sweetened condensed milk. Brown layers fat scoops of vanilla ice cream (he unapologetically opts for Breyers or Edy's) between fried mantou buns, which are then glazed in the condensed milk. Some might consider it overkill, but I found it to be a fitting final note, as playful and unabashedly indulgent as the rest of what's coming out of this kitchen.
159 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn
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