Ditching its stigma as sustenance for the aged or infirm, porridge is making a quiet comeback, and you can add Doug Hwang’s Tygershark to the list of venues serving drool-worthy gruel. Diners descend upon the airy Prospect Heights canteen to sample velvety chicken congee gathered around a puddle of dark brown mole. Pooled on top of the bird-studded rice porridge, the nutty sauce is supercharged by lashings of chile oil; across the surface lies a mosaic of peanuts, sesame seeds, dried chile peppers, and torn cilantro. It’s a nod to the south from executive chef and expat Texan Eduardo Sandoval, who uses fruity guajillo and chipotle meco chiles, as well as the Korean hot pepper powder gochugaru, to make his earthy and complex condiment.
But Tygershark goes well beyond the bowl. In their multipurpose coffee shop, boutique, and restaurant, Hwang and Sandoval offer a splashy nouveau take on Korean comfort food, with congee and Spam-laden breakfast burritos available at brunch. Sandoval, a former Mission Chinese and Cantina cook, lards his $18 porridge with ham hock dashi, giving the mole-slicked grains a knuckle-y gravitas. Another bowl holds opaque marrow broth made from bones boiled as long as fifteen hours; the kitchen adds bouncy wheat noodles and brisket that’s been braised overnight in banana leaf, notes Hwang. As brisket goes, it’s heady stuff that couldn’t be any tenderer, with herbal notes from its leafy wrapping. And while the $19 dish is meant to recall creamy tonkotsu ramen, Sandoval spoons in a jewel-like cascade of salmon roe that imbues both beef and broth with a pleasing subtle brininess that transports it far above your run-of-the-mill noodles.
Brine is one of Tygershark’s recurring themes and greatest hallmarks. A first-time restaurateur and surfing enthusiast, Hwang comes from a family of fishmongers and for this venture drew on a childhood spent visiting seafood markets with his father. “Learning about all the different types of seafood, and then seeing my mother turn it into amazing food” inspired him to open the café, which sells a hodgepodge of cosmetics, quirky greeting cards, and surfboards up front (where the coffee machine reigns, fueled by Philadelphia’s Concave roasters). “I still enjoy heading to [the fish market at] Hunts Point during the week to see what different offerings there are, and if I find something interesting, Eduardo and I will work together to create a dish for the menu,” he adds.
So whiting, the white-fleshed fish usually found breaded and subjected to tartar and hot sauces, come fried whole and two to a plate. They’re doused in a tart remoulade made from Kewpie mayonnaise, and served on a freeform slate that looks nice but gets particularly untidy as you finagle flesh from bone. The mess is worth it, as that flesh is flaky, abundant, and delicate underneath its crisp coating. The same goes for whole fried porgy served with banchan and bao for DIY fish sandwiches. And I’ll light a figurative candle for Tygershark’s shrimp “wings” — seared head-on prawns split down the back — which Hwang informed me are coming off the menu. With any luck, they’ll reappear soon, as the massive Argentine crustaceans make for some outrageously fun eating, submerged in an electrifying ground pork gravy that buzzes with fermented black beans and citrusy Japanese togarashi pepper. The dish reminded me of a Cantonese recipe I’d enjoyed at my childhood local in the Bronx, in which lobster and pork shared a wok. But the sweet seafood and tangy pig here were even more enchanting, showcasing near-nuclear levels of unflinching flavor.
Tygershark began as a series of pop-ups in Hwang’s Williamsburg apartment, and he and Sandoval maintain an ultra-casual, house party vibe throughout their stylish railroad space. That’s great for upbeat banter at the beginning of the meal, but the charm wanes once the staff’s impromptu song-and-dance routine lasts long enough that multiple tables are fixated on them like an Ellen’s Stardust Diner performance. It smarts doubly when bottles of booze are brought to the table unopened and left unpoured. Still, you might luck out, like I did, with a server whose cheer is so infectious that you won’t mind the service quirks, or Tygershark’s lack of desserts. (“The kitchen is prototyping them” was the answer I got, nearly two months after opening.) Whatever grievances arise pale in comparison to what’s on the plate. And Sandoval, who often beams from behind his open kitchen, likely has some sugary tricks up his sleeve. Until then, there’s coffee and the possibility of a trip to ice cream juggernaut Ample Hills Creamery down the street.
581 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 15, 2016