Manhattan has undoubtedly cornered the market on Michelin-starred restaurants, with James Beard award-winning chefs offering 8-course, 4 hour, $250 a head tasting menus. But where the heck do residents go when they crave Dorito-topped Korean carbonara at 12 a.m?
Brooklynites, on the other hand, have no such quandary. Not since Nick Subic opened King Noodle in Bushwick two weeks ago, an LED-lit, Pop-Asian-styled spectacular offering fantastically gonzo fare like Rice Cakes with Krab and Mozzerella and Mapo Chili Cheese Fries. An alum of Roberta’s and Do or Dine, Subic applies a sense of levity to a stable of pristine ingredients, which are further informed by his lifelong passion for Asian food. “I basically just ate out a ton,” he said of his hard-earned handiness with a wok. “And honestly, I learned more by watching people cook me lo mein through bulletproof glass than I ever did working in a restaurant.”
First things first. Kimchee Carbonara dusted with crushed Doritos. Explain.
A lot of the dishes at King Noodle started as staff meal at the Narrows. The kimchee and Dorito combo had been on my mind for quite a while after eating a Kimchee and Mozzarella pizza at Snacky (which reminded my partner Keith and I both of Doritos) and I started messing around with different dishes. The Carbonara was already something I was developing and it came together at a tasting when I put out a bunch of little sauces and pickles and included a small bowl of Doritos as well.
Your menu finds inspiration in Thai, Korean, Chinese and Japanese cuisine. What’s your personal experience with Asian cooking and flavors?
I've worked at a bunch of Asian restaurants. Some of them were copies of the late 90s NYC Asian fusion restaurants in other cities, but at the time I had no idea of their origins. Early in my career I was really interested in learning about traditional techniques and ingredients but that whole world seemed really impermeable at the time. There just weren't as many English language cookbooks or chefs with real backgrounds in the cuisine running English-speaking restaurants. Eventually things changed and I got to work with some real ingredients and more traditional techniques but in the beginning it was just a lot of travel, trying to talk to chefs and ask questions and a ton of reading.
As far as interior design goes, your space is undeniably acid-trippy, kind of like a less self-serious Fushimi. How would you describe your vision here, and how do the various elements work together?
Keith and I ate in Koreatown a bunch while we were developing the menu and we love how disarming it can be to walk into any of the restaurants there. The lights are really bright, often the music is loud and it feels like a club. Watching a karaoke setup being built in the middle of your meal as the restaurant transforms into a karaoke bar is totally bizarre to me. But once you get past the initial shock of your surroundings you realize you're in for a comforting and delicious meal that comes in tandem with a melon full of soju or tower of beer, and that was a big inspiration for us. That marriage of disorientation and delicious food is really fun and makes the experience unique.
What did you take away from your time working at restaurants like Roberta’s and Do or Dine that you’d say is most evident at King Noodle?
Roberta's and Do or Dine offered me very different kinds of freedom. At Roberta's I got to work with some of the nicest products I'd ever seen, and most of the dishes were collaborations between the cooks. I loved the spirit of that, and having 3 or 4 people crowding around a plate and talking about how to improve it made a huge impression on me. It’s something I try to replicate now. Do or Dine was an opportunity to explore every flavor combination I thought could work (though there were certainly a fair number that didn't). Also having the resources to really try something and see people's reaction to it taught me a lot.
You describe yourself as being a “sister” spot to the Narrows (partner Keith Kenji Cochran is in charge of your beverage program). How do your two businesses operate in tandem (especially considering the Narrows also serves a full menu)?
When our dining room gets full we send a lot of people to the Narrows—it has a big backyard and is a pretty ideal place to wait for a table. The chef (of the Narrows) and I have been collaborating for a long time, and we are back and forth in each other's kitchens pretty regularly. And of course it's my after work drink spot.
Besides that Dorito pasta, what other dishes do you think best represent the concept and vibe of the restaurant?
The mapo chili cheese fries are pretty obvious, being another twist on a classic. Most of our vegetable dishes are really important to the menu and overall experience too. We price them in the $5-7 range so a table can really get a lot of different plates without being overwhelmed. Our spicy corn and mayo dish has been really popular and is basically a take on elotes with Asian ingredients. And of course, the spicy wings and beef skewers are fun to eat and share.
When testing dishes for the new menu, what were some of your most memorable failed experiments?
There are a lot of flavors I keep coming back to. Kimchee is used a lot on my menu but to me it seems really versatile—kind of a workhorse ingredient in the same way a lot of chefs use bacon. I've made ice cream out of it and served it with blueberries. I really love those flavors together but they are definitely weird. Most of the dishes I've shelved and keep coming back to are there because I still haven't figured out how to help people get past the weirdness, not because they don't taste good.
Besides at your own restaurant, what are some of your other favorite places to eat in Bushwick?
Cafeteria La Mejor, Roberta's, Fritzl's, El Paisa (the one at Irving and Myrtle), Tony's Pizza, Amanda's Pupuseria, Momo, the Anchored Inn. There are tons of Mexican bodegas that do one or two things extraordinarily well. I eat Chinese takeout all the time too.
As a chef, you must put in a lot of late nights in general. What’s your go-to meal after a long night of service?
I usually go for a sausage egg and cheese at L-Mo's. On the rare occasions that I stay out long enough for it to be open I go to Tina's for a giant breakfast.
What’s the strangest item in your home fridge or pantry right now?
I have a whole bunch of fermented squid guts, tiny fermented crabs, lots of dried fish snacks. I rarely cook a full meal at home—usually I just pull rice out of my cooker and top it with pickles and kimchee and maybe an egg.
What culinary trends are you really into right now, and which do you wish would just die already?
I love that restaurants are allowed to be a little bit silly now. There's still a lot of backlash in the industry, and of course there will always be scores of cooks in their early 20s who think 3 Michelin star restaurants are the only ones worth cooking or eating at. And I love the experience of eating in those places, but accessibility is important to me too. The dessert trends are a little annoying to me. I'd really like to eat a cronut, actually, but I would love to see something more inventive than the scores of cupcakes and silly little confections that are always getting press.
Who would be your dream dinner guest at the restaurant (they could be living or dead)?
Prince. R Kelly. Spiderman?
What do you consider to be the single greatest personal achievement in your career thus far?
Owning a restaurant where I get to cook the food I love.
Like struggling actors envisioning their Oscar moment, what's your fondest chef pipe dream?
Owning a restaurant in New York and doing my own food in it is it! Even after cooking professionally for 15 years I feel incredibly lucky to have found partners who believe in what I'm doing and an audience to come in and eat it.
1045 Flushing Ave, (718) 456-6543