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Gastronomy

Trigg Brown and Josh Ku Want Brooklyn to Fall in Love With Taiwanese Food

  • In Taiwan’s Keelung night market, stall workers stuff fried dough with chunks of sausage, tomatoes, and Kewpie mayo.
    Here in East Williamsburg, Win Son reinterprets the classic by placing a butter-grilled shrimp patty between two halves of a grease-slicked miantuan bun. In Taiwan’s Keelung night market, stall workers stuff fried dough with chunks of sausage, tomatoes, and Kewpie mayo.
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In Taiwan’s Keelung night market, stall workers stuff fried dough with chunks of sausage, tomatoes, and Kewpie mayo. Here in East Williamsburg, Win Son reinterprets the classic by placing a butter-grilled shrimp patty between two halves of a grease-slicked miantuan bun.

Granted, it is an easy joke to toss between a chef and a property manager who both share a love for good Taiwanese food. After they met, the pair started going to Flushing to dine at the restaurants Ku — who is of Taiwanese descent — grew up going to. They bonded over traditional dishes like flies’ head, constantly talked about the cuisine, and worked through many recipes. After several years of “seriously joking,” Brown, 28, and Ku, 29, opened Win Son, a Taiwanese-American restaurant located in East Williamsburg.

But before the restaurant came their friendship. Five or six years ago they met at a barbecue — more specifically, a backyard barbecue for residents in Brown’s apartment building in Bed-Stuy, where Ku’s friend also lived. They’d met before, but once they started talking about Taiwanese food, they knew there was the potential to open a restaurant together, even though only one of them was in the industry and neither considered himself an expert on the cuisine. While Brown was a sous chef who’d helped open Upland — or, as he says, “Justin Smillie helped me work for him” — Ku’s first real leap into the restaurant industry was Win Son. In his past life, Ku had a property management company and worked with low-income housing and Section 8 properties.

Brown attributes his interest in Taiwanese food to his mentor and the “guiding force in [his] life and career,” Pei Jen Chang, whom he met in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the time, Brown worked at the Keswick Hall and Golf Club where he cooked “upscale country club food” under Chang, who is Chinese-American with family from Taiwan. When Chang was offered to take over at nearby restaurant TEN Sushi, Brown followed, and he learned how to cook Japanese food under Chang’s mentorship. Then came stints at Craft, Heritage Radio, and Upland. He gained valuable lessons from those experiences and made important connections. (Not only does he still use pork from Heritage Food at Win Son, but he also met his girlfriend, Patty Lee, on the line at Craft.) Those encounters, along with Ku’s experience, made for a patchwork of experiences that helped build Win Son.

Though Brown says it “felt like subconsciously — well, consciously — we just didn't like what we were doing at the time,” there was no easy decision to actually open the restaurant. It wasn’t a clear, step-by-step progression to how Win Son materialized on the corner of Montrose and Graham Avenues. It took a few years of that mutual joking-but-not-really vibe, and it wasn’t until the space itself landed in their lap, as well as a fortuitous gift of an industrial stove, that they put their lofty goal into motion.

It was Ku’s work with property management that led them to 159 Graham Avenue, Win Son’s current home. Ku was “vanilla boxing” the restaurant — setting up basics of the empty space — but the interested parties weren’t able to successfully close deals with the landlord. “It was a raw space that needed quite a bit of work,” Ku says. Then he had the opportunity to lease it, and he “just kinda took the deal.”

Space secured, their idea moved along. They decided to open a restaurant serving what they call Taiwanese-American cuisine — food with an emphasis on the food traditions of the country but cooked through a New American lens, incorporating local, well-sourced ingredients. They named it Win Son, after Ku’s grandfather’s old textile company — the name means abundance, which felt like a good sign. The two prepared for the opening by devouring Cathy Erway’s book, The Food of Taiwan; going to Tainan City and “smashing” oyster omelettes on Guohua Street; and just being wide-eyed, interested, and eager to learn about the cuisine and culture.

Being owners of one of the few Taiwanese restaurants in Brooklyn, it’s not unusual for Brown and Ku to hear broad, sweeping generalizations of the menu they serve. Customers tend to lump the food in with other Asian cuisines: “Do you guys have pad Thai?” is not an uncommon question. And on the other end of the spectrum, people assume they’re trying to dumb down the dishes for unfamiliar palates. Brown once got asked, "Oh what is that, like, hipster Asian food?" Needless to say, he wasn’t happy about the question. “No. Fuck you, man. We take ourselves seriously.” After a few breaths he says more calmly, “It's Taiwanese food through our lens.”