Food is a rare universal language, it not only fills a physical void within the human body but also an emotional one. Great food is not only fresh but also exhibits the passion and love of those who prepared it. It can bring you home, even when you aren't home. While Freshness has curated #freshnesseats on Instagram for some time now, we are proud to present our first Freshness Eats featured restaurant, 886.
Located on St. Mark's Place in the heart of East Village, New York, this Taiwanese establishment first opened its doors on July 11, 2018. Co-owners Eric Sze and Andy Chuang picked the date because 7-Elevens are abundant in their native country of Taiwan and because convenience stores are very much a part of growing up back home. Everything about the restaurant and food is an ode to Taiwan.
Once you walk inside, the decor is both intimate and chill. Intimacy is achieved with a dimly lit dining area, tabletop candles and compact seating (this is New York after all). An Over Rice Studio designed mural of famous Taiwanese figures (musician Jay Chou, singer Jolin Tsai, basketball player Jeremy Lin, rapper MC HotDog, director Ang Lee and ex-mayor of Kaohsiung Chen Chu) playing a game of mahjong set the chill and relaxed vibes. Neon lighting throughout the ceiling and walls further provide the feeling of being in a bar somewhere out in Asia.
The idea of being back home in Asia and drinking with friends is what Sze and Chuang were going for. "The concept of the restaurant is oriented around drinking and bringing people together. The Asian food drinking culture is dominated by the Japanese and Koreans but it's not like Taiwanese people don't have that culture, it's just that nobody has brought it forward, so we wanted to be the first. It's both economical and cultural. It can make us money but at the same time it provides our friends and people who speak our language as well as others who are curious about Taiwanese food and Chinese food a place to hang out," says Sze.
886 serves Taiwan Beer, Taiwan Beer Gold Label and Taiwan Beer Sweet Touch Lychee in addition to locally sourced sake from Brooklyn Kura and select wines. The beverages are all designed to pair perfectly with menu items like the Stir Fry Classics, which are the "most fundamental drinking concept of Taiwanese food," explains Sze. Menu items also contain "street food elements, things that we ate growing up which aren't necessarily Taiwanese, and things that are super traditional," Sze adds with a smile. What exactly is Taiwanese cuisine? Simplified into three words Sze says, "Chinese. Japanese. Lard."
With all those influences, the chef prepared five of his favorite dishes which included two new menu items: the Honey Glazed Popcorn Chicken and Crispy Silken Tofu. The other three items were the Charred Cabbage & Bacon, Taiwanese Sausage Fried Rice and The Notorious T.F.C., a spicy fried chicken sandwich inspired by the ones sold at KFC in Taiwan. Pork is used widely in Taiwanese cooking and these menu items blend both traditional ingredients and tastes that Sze and Chuang have acquired while attending school and living in New York.
Chef Sze's Top Five Favorite Dishes
Explaining how he goes about his R&D, Sze humbly admits it's pretty random. "It's just like, oh shit, this would be really good, let's do it, if it's good it's good. Often times, we do one thing and it's whack, but then you get the competitive spirit going and want to find a good way to present it." The Honey Glazed Popcorn Chicken is a great example of this process. "That started off with me trying to fuck around with just a different type of popcorn chicken that's kind of a marriage between American, Korean and Taiwanese cuisine. For two months it was shitty chicken after shitty chicken and then one day, I forgot where I saw honey glazed chicken, probably one of the Korean fried chicken places, but I took the chili oil we have, the Sze Daddy, blended it with honey, drizzled it on top of salt and pepper chicken and it turned out to be fucking amazing."
So what does the chef like to eat himself? Sze admittedly isn't one to stray away from habits, he finds a place he likes and he sticks to it. "I like Madame Vo and dim sum at Jing Fong but most of the time I find myself just craving noodles and dumplings. When that happens, I just go to Flushing. My most recent obsession is Joe's Steam Rice Roll."
With the New York food scene constantly turning over new leaves, 886 offers fresh flavors from Taiwan mixed in with locally sourced ingredients and some of chef Sze's personal flair. "The food scene in New York hasn't really changed, but it's gotten bigger since we opened seven months ago. The Asian momentum had already been going, but after we opened, so many more Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese places have opened." The chef also made it a point to emphasize that "there's a lot of our own people trying to put us down. It's very clear by now that those people are in the minority but haters always speak the loudest. We cook and we want to be hospitable. We want to provide for the people who want to support us and see where we go."
So will 886 be expanding anytime soon? Sze paused, smiled, and kept it real, "Yes, but not solidified. Fuck you haters and your Yelp reviews." We're excited to see how 886 keeps it fresh in 2019 and beyond.