Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to the LES for Salt and Pepper Cauli and other vegan delights.
Justin Lee and Jared Moeller were on track to open their vegan, "kind of Chinese" restaurant Fat Choy in the spring when COVID hit the city, halting construction on their modest-sized space on the Lower East Side. And then even when work finally restarted (which took longer than they hoped, due to the sudden bidding wars among businesses looking for crews), the duo had to change their interior designs, their strategic plan, and much of the menu to be more counter service- and takeout-friendly.
Basically, Lee and Moeller restructured their entire plan in a matter of months, and came out on the other side with one of the best new restaurants of the year.
Fat Choy opened a couple of weeks ago on Broome Street just off of Orchard and, fortuitously, it's on one of the city's Open Streets blocks, and thus pleasantly closed to vehicular traffic for most of the day and night. You order from the sidewalk window and, if you're dining "in", can grab one of the comfortably distanced tables in the curbside eating area and someone will bring out your food. There's no indoor dining at present, though Lee is excited about setting up a very casual chef's counter inside someday.
Neither Lee, who previously cooked at places like Golden Diner and Barbuto, nor Moeller, who worked at Del Posto, are strictly vegan in their personal lives. In fact, the two met while working at the extremely meaty Cannibal. Their decision to make Fat Choy entirely plant-based is more environmental than dietary. "I want my kids to grow up in a world that hasn't been destroyed by climate change," said Lee. "We're just trying to do our part, however small."
Everything is so good at Fat Choy that if you're with a couple of people I would suggest just getting the whole menu and sharing it all. Lee and Moeller aren't really interested in mimicking meat dishes here, with wheat gluten proteins like seiten and such, instead giving center stage to an array of fresh vegetables, most purchased from the markets of Chinatown, and allowing their natural flavors and textures to shine.
The Salt and Pepper Cauli, for example, is a seemingly simple battered-and-fried concoction, but oh man is this a fantastic dish: the exterior crackles and packs some serious heat, the cauliflower inside is both firm and juicy, and you'll wish every fry stand in town handed out that lively shallot dipping sauce you get here. Same for the Little Bok Choys, which are steamed to the ideal degree of softness without being mushy, loaded with garlic and drizzled with a beautiful brown sauce. And the Green Salad, tossed with "Asian fine herbs" and topped with pretty rice pearls, is a crunchy delight.
The Smashed Cucumber, served chilled and spicy in a sesame dressing and "leopard sauce," will make you wish it was still summertime. Sticky Rice Dumplings are stuffed with literal scraps to help reduce Fat Choy's kitchen waste, and they are outstanding. Both of Lee's parents grew up nearby in Chinatown, but Lee himself was raised in Virginia, and nods to his Southern heritage with the least-Chinese dish on the menu, an outstanding Rice, Beans, and Greens.
The two heftiest dishes, listed as Chef's Specials, are the fat Rice Rolls served with wilted greens and a tangy black vinegar sauce; and the superb Mushroom Sloppy, a gorgeous sandwich made from a fungi-and-tofu mix, crisp Chinese slaw, and stuffed inside a chewy sesame roll that takes Lee two days to make back in the tiny kitchen. There's beer and wine available if you're so inclined.
Fat Choy is an excellent restaurant, perfect in every way exactly as it is right now even with all the pandemic-related changes and challenges Lee and Moeller faced in bringing it to us. It's tough to overstate just how good this food is, and I can't wait to go back.
Fat Choy is located at 250 Broome Street, between Orchard and Ludlow Streets, and is currently open on Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. (347-778-5889; fatchoynyc.com)