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All photos by Scott Lynch
Mar 21, 2022
By
Wenwen (Scott Lynch)
Chef Eric Sze and front-of-the-house wizard Andy Chuang are serious restaurateurs, committed to bringing the food of their native Taiwan to the forefront of the conversation in New York, and providing a level of hospitality that’s attentive and welcoming even when you’re sitting on plastic stool and ordering a fried chicken sandwich. As one does at their first restaurant together, 886 on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.
Sze and Chuang also really like to party, an obvious statement to anyone who’s ever lost a few hours under the purple neon lights at 886, or were lucky enough to snag a table at the raucous opening week at the duo’s new “Tawainese home kitchen” spot Wenwen, located near the end of Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint and already getting booked up fast.
“Our core spirit is casual, rowdy, and fun,” Sze tells Brooklyn Magazine. “At the beginning of 886 [which opened in 2018] we tried to do some things that weren’t really us, and the early pandemic helped us kind of shift, and go all-in on what we really wanted to do. We felt like didn’t have anything to lose: if we’re fucked, we’re fucked anyway, so we might as well be who we really want to be.”
Wenwen, which is named after Sze’s mother, Wenchi, and wife, Wenhui (the same character is used for both, he explains, and it also means “language,” and implies “elegance”), brings that 886 party spirit to Greenpoint, but in a much larger, and slightly more grown-up setting. There are actual chairs here, for example, not just plastic stools, and though you can slurp down a $70, ten-shot, mezcal-gin-rum flaming cocktail, and the bathrooms are lit like mini-discos, the high ceilings, exposed brick, and wooden bar serve up a familiar Brooklyn-casual vibe.
The menus: A family affair (Scott Lynch)
Most exciting for Sze: the kitchen at Wenwen is huge compared to 886, large enough for him and his team to really explore the food of his family, and his memories of growing up in Taiwan. The pork belly and cuttlefish platter, for instance, “is based on my mom’s recipe, the one thing I always want to eat when I go home,” says Sze. At Wenwen it’s sticky and rich, incredibly tender, and very good.
Pork belly and cuttlefish; $35 (Scott Lynch)
Also delicious in the large-format section of the menu is Sze’s Whole BDSM Fried Chicken (the acronym stands for “brined, de-boned, soy-milk battered”), which uses a yellow-fat bird he gets from Chinatown, marinated for two days in fermented soybeans, five spice, turmeric, and tons of garlic, slathered in a wet batter and double-fried before making its dramatic appearance at your table. Sze only makes five of these a night, first come first served, and they sold out by 5:05 last Saturday night. Strategize accordingly.
The whole ‘BDSM’ fried chicken; $52 (Scott Lynch)
Highlights from among Wenwen snacks and sides include the “Numbing Celtuce Salad” (this is for hardcore garlic fans only); the cubes of crispy fried tofu covered in “Taiwan dust” (white pepper, sugar, salt, MSG); and both the wok-fried peashoots with tofu skin and the water spinach strewn with dried shrimp.
Numbing Celtuce Salad; $12 (Scott Lynch)
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Pea Shoots with Tofu Skin; $16 (Scott Lynch)
Some of those dishes will be familiar to 886 regulars, such as the “Three Cup Chicken,” the “Fly’s Head” (seasoned ground pork, very good dumped over rice), and, one of my favorites last week, the Lo Ba Beng, a street food that combines chopped-up pork belly, pickled mustard greens, and peanut butter to excellent effect.
The Fly’s Head; $15 (Scott Lynch)
Another big Wenwen winner, the 886 Noodle bowl, only available in Brooklyn. Sze says he invented this dish while “drunk out my mind” after hours in the kitchen of his first restaurant, The Tang.
The 886 noodle dish; $19 (Scott Lynch)
It’s a combination of Taiwanese beef noodle soup, a “quasi-hummus” made from miso chickpea lard, and a zhajiang sauce thick with pork and bean paste. The Lily Flemming Fried Rice, loaded with breaded pork jowl and cabbage, will also make you full and happy.
“I love the camaraderie of the Taiwanese restaurant group,” says Sze, a roster that includes Win Son in East Williamsburg and Ho Foods in the East Village. “A big motivation for me is to show the younger Taiwanese kids who come here that cooking Taiwanese food is cool. Our head chef at Wenwen is Kathy Chen, who asked to stage [an unpaid internship] at 886 fresh out of culinary school in 2019. We didn’t really have a system to stage, but I was flattered and honored, and as soon as I signed the lease here in Greenpoint I called her. She spent six months at 886 training on the wok, and now she’s a fucking rock star.”
The only dessert at Wenwen is fried tangyuan with ice cream, the stuffed rice balls plopped into a puddle of black sesame sauce and strewn with cilantro.
Fried Tangyuan with ice cream; $16 (Scott Lynch)
Cocktails hover around the $15 mark, there’s plenty of beer, wine, sake, and, as at 886, all sorts of shots are encouraged. Reservations are mostly booked for the next few weeks, but there are a few walk-in seats at the bar each night, and so far these are easy to snag if you come right when service starts at 5:00.
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Wenwen is located at 1025 Manhattan Avenue, between Green and Freeman Streets, and is currently open Wednesday through Sunday from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.
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Scott Lynch
Scott Lynch is a freelance food writer, photojournalist, and preschool receptionist in New York City
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