“I didn’t like how the popcorn shrimp came out, so the beignets are on the house,” Medwin Pang conceded as he set down a dish of airy fritters at a neighboring table. The chef and first-time restaurateur constantly self-assesses at Hunger Pang, the Asian-American restaurant he opened in October with his wife, Karen Do, on a burgeoning strip of Church Avenue in Kensington, Brooklyn. Delivering an oval plate overflowing with crisp shoestring potatoes, he exclaimed, “I’m really happy with how these fries came out,” as if justifying the ungodly-huge portion. I’m certainly impressed. Three to an order, the beignets were faultless, their salted caramel sauce concentrated to a dark, gooey glaze. The fries were excellent, too, sharing top billing with muscly slips of hanger steak on a plate of steak frites, the most expensive dish on the menu at $22. Early on it came with a side of miso butter, the nutty fermented soybeans adding depth to the beef’s minerality. Now cups of chile-spiked “Pangry mayo” accompany the steak, diversifying fry-dipping options. The spuds are also available on their own.
Such obsessive tinkering signifies a restlessly creative mind (a common trait among chefs), and Pang betrays his enthusiasm in daily specials and a changing menu that reflects both market availability and personal preference. Take his “Soondubu Chioppino,” a heady shellfish stew that both melds and builds upon two distinct styles of slow-simmered soup: Korean soondubu jjigae, made with tofu and kimchi; and cioppino, an Italian-American seafood stew made with wine, tomatoes, and the day’s catch. The chef’s strength lies in choosing which elements to incorporate into his recipes from the tapestry of Eastern and Western cuisines. Here Pang marries the intensity of house-made kimchi with tomatoes and seaweed dashi “for body,” fortifying his fermented broth with spicy gochujang chile paste, bok choy leaves, and mussels, clams, and head-on shrimp. A poached egg joins soft tofu, lacing each bite with velvet. Dig deeper to excavate tiny bay scallops as soft as marshmallows. Per Korean tradition, a bowl of rice accompanies. Remove your shells to make room for the seasoned starch, which thickens the leftover broth.
Hunger Pang marks the chef’s return to the neighborhood after a childhood growing up around Central Brooklyn, the son of immigrant parents from different cultural backgrounds (his mother is from London, his father from Hong Kong). Thanks to his friend, writer-director Harmony Korine, he briefly flirted with background-acting fame, appearing in Larry Clark’s cult Nineties drama Kids as a blunt-smoking, pedestrian-beating skater punk. In between training with fine-dining veterans like David Burke and Jean-Louis Palladin, he spent years as a production manager for Coca-Cola on campaigns for Smart and Vitamin waters. Smiling in his chef’s whites, his head covered in a bandana, the tall, slender Pang remains affable now even when the kitchen gets slammed, as it occasionally does during happy hour, when the restaurant offers free bar snacks with every drink order. Aided by Do, who hosts, serves, and tends bar, he floats between kitchen and dining room, greeting customers, running plates to tables, and soliciting feedback.
Pang has spent the months since opening fine-tuning his menu, a concise mix of sub-$10 small plates, main courses, and sides, along with a special section for rice dishes. “Misotto” suitably connects Chinese congee and Italian risotto. It’s a soupy, hearty bowl of grains amped up with mushrooms, cabbage, a poached egg, and plenty of butter, with a side of pickled ginger to stave off palate fatigue. To this or the “Pauper’s Banquet,” another rice dish, you can add pork belly, chicken confit, or mixed vegetables like fresh shiitake mushrooms and bok choy (which in this case saved the heavy porridge from becoming overbearing). The meats also anchor first-rate mantou sandwiches, the buns slathered with hoisin and spicy mayo and brightened with cucumbers, cilantro, and shredded carrots and cabbage. There’s nothing novel about a pork bun in 2015. The same goes for popcorn shrimp, and a straightforward plate of Hong Kong–style bird’s-nest noodles. But while they might not have the whimsy of the seafood stew, Pang’s renditions are ably executed versions of familiar flavors.
Last year this space was home to the Dogwood, a popular Southern restaurant whose owners bailed to handle family matters. The layout of the dining room hasn’t changed much from the era of biscuits and gravy; Hunger Pang even kept the tables and chairs. A retro fan whirs overhead, hanging from the white, pressed-tin ceiling. In back the team painted splashes of red against the small bar area, and, most notably, a mural of Chinese folk hero Guan Yu. He’s not there for shits and giggles: Pang practices the wing chun style of kung fu and describes Guan Yu, a general during the Han Dynasty, as “the patron saint of martial arts and a symbol of dedication and loyalty.” He seems as fitting an idol as any for this prodigal son, returned home and cooking with fire.