Our next installment of Quick Bites brings us to Williamsburg where earnest Chinese cooking comes with a free-flowing tap of soy sauce.
Eat at enough new restaurants over the years and you get to be pretty good at spotting who's simply making a grab at some market-researched money (you can usually tell this even before the food arrives), and who's in it for the love. The genuine love of a certain type of food, for example, or even a single dish. The pleasure derived from making other people feel comfortable, and happy, and satisfied. The willingness to work a thousand hours a day in order to build a life around sharing your enthusiasms.
Kings County Imperial, a casual Chinese place that just opened in Williamsburg, is most definitely of the latter sort. The second restaurant from Tracy Jane Young and Josh Grinker (the first is Stone Park Cafe, in Park Slope), Kings County Imperial is the result of the couple's long romance with Chinese cooking, and their time spent traveling throughout that country, particularly in the central region. The menu doesn't strive for "authenticity," and offers both familiar dishes as well as interpretations from all over the cuisine, but there's no mistaking the emotional connection between the food on your plate and the people who made it for you.
You can almost hear the conversation between the two of them: "Remember that amazing ______ we ate in ________!? Oh man let's make something like that!"
Kings County Imperial has a ramshackle charm, and on any given night you might find yourself seated in a rickety metal chair seemingly salvaged from some 1970s classroom; or at a plush circular red banquette, complete with built-in Lazy Susan; or at a table in the back dining area, a space that feels like you're eating inside the hull of Chinese junk; or perched happily on a stool (and probably chatting with beverage director Richard Murphy) at the extra-wide, antique mahogany bar.
One of those taps at the bar, by the way, is where your server will pull your little carafe of small-batch, barrel-aged soy sauce, made in Southern China exclusively for the restaurant from an almost-literally ancient family recipe (I was told it goes back four generations). It is very good soy sauce.
Kings also has an impressively lush garden out back where Young grows various greens, goji berries, Szechuan peppercorns, and other just-picked delights that may make their way into your meal. (There's no official outside seating yet, though maybe next summer.)
As you can imagine at such a labor-of-love, neighborhood-y spot, everyone who works here is exceptionally friendly and welcoming.
There may not be that single, explosive, Instagram-ready signature dish at Kings County Imperial, but chef Grinker and his crew put out a consistently solid spread nonetheless. And it is a spread: like so many new restaurants, Kings operates on that family-style, share-everything, deliver-it-all-almost-at-once system which is either good raucous fun or anxious-making chaos, depending on your temperament.
I ate here twice last week, tried at least eight things, and went home happy each night. My favorite dish was probably the Steel Pot Beef which, if you like super-tender marinated meat, fat chewy noodles, a major hit of ginger, sweet onions and peppers, a background of peppercorn heat, and earthy, exotic mushrooms, will likely please you as well. Also up there on the list: the lively Weeping Tiger Salad, which nicely combined the brightness of cilantro, the bite of citrus dressing, the fire of long peppers, and the funk of tiny dried shrimp.
The Dan Dan noodles were nowhere near as spicy as you find in other places around town, but they'll still get your attention, and bring some of that pleasant lip-numbness to the party. The marinated Sichuan Duck, heavily seasoned, battered and wok-fried, should be avoided by anyone who dislikes salt—or, at least, you shouldn't dip the already-plentifully-flavored bird into the dish of fried salt that comes on the side—but by all means get the Angry Pig fried rice, a unexpectedly mellow dish with sweet chewy chunks of housemade pork jerky.
The Prawn Fries, which are kind of like thick shrimp-toast breadsticks covered in sticky black sesame seeds, are a fine way to start, though really, my favorite snacky dish was the small bowl of complimentary spicy peanuts that hits your table shortly after you sit down. And the cool, crunchy, and juicy (and smoky, and spicy) Smoked Sichuan Cucumber Salad goes well with everything else you probably ordered.
For dessert, Young was kind enough to bring us a lovely, off-menu Coconut Tapioca Pudding topped with a handful of goji berries she had just grabbed from her garden. I had never had gojis not-dried before; they interesting served fresh mostly because they taste nothing like the Cinnamon Red Hots your eyes prepare you for.
It's not like this area around the Lorimer/Metropolitan L/G station is hurting for decent, casual places to eat, but there's always room for one or a dozen more especially when a) the food's good and b) the people running the place give a shit about what they're doing. Stop in for a drink and a bite or a full-blown feast sometime soon.
Kings County Imperial is located at 20 Skillman Avenue, between Meeker and Lorimer Streets, and is open on Sunday through Thursday from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday until 1:00 a.m. (718-610-2000; kingscoimperial.com)