Dining options for Asian cuisines in New York never seem to run out, with Chinese takeout on most street corners and authentic Chinatown and Koreatown joints available to all.
But now, what’s becoming increasingly popular is a new kind of Asian fusion, as seen from the successes of many recent restaurants. Top Chef alumnus Dale Talde has emphasized his aim to “take the dirty word out of fusion” in his new Asian-American restaurant, Talde, where he incorporates “a lot of Brooklyn,” tries to “be as local as possible,” and integrates a range of cuisines— Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Japanese. There is Wong, the “Asian locavore” restaurant in the West Village, or RedFarm, also in the West Village, which is described on its website as bringing “greenmarket sensibility to modern and inventive Chinese food.” Grub Street named buns the cheap eat of the year, a testament to the popularity of places like Momofuku, with its famous pork bun, Taiwanese bun restaurant Baohaus, and Brooklyn Wok Shop.
Asian fusion itself is by no means a revelation, as Max Falkowitz, editor of food blog Serious Eats, explains: “Asian fusion isn’t a new idea—it spread like a virus a couple decades ago, as new ingredients and techniques came to light in Western kitchens, then leveled off.”
However, what Asian fusion has inspired is the use of popular Asian ingredients in Western formats. Take Asiadog, a hotdog place in Chinatown that serves variations of the well-known classic with Japanese curry, kimchee, and Vietnamese banh mi toppings. Japadog, a popular—and self-explanatory—Vancouver hot dog joint, also opened a New York outpost earlier this year to much success.
The rise of food trucks has also given this mix of East and West a boost. Columbia’s own Eddie Song, who graduated from Columbia College in 2008, and his food truck, Korilla BBQ, are a familiar example of this trend. For those who have yet to see Korilla on Amsterdam, the truck serves Korean barbecue in the form of a burrito, taco, or rice bowl. Kimchi Taco, Domo Taco, and Big D’s Grub Truck also follow in the same vein.
For Melanie Campbell, who co-owns Asiadog with her husband, Steve Porto, the popularity of such cuisine reflects the appreciation of Asian influences throughout the West. “I think Americans’ perception of Asian cuisine as a whole right now is already super positive. Foods like ‘kimchee’ and ‘pork buns’ and ‘banh mi’ are so ‘in’ right now,” Campbell says. “We are just further celebrating this movement.”
Much of the motivation for establishments like Korilla and Asiadog seems to stem from this desire to introduce people to the cuisine of their owners’ heritage. Campbell and her husband both have Western and Asian backgrounds, as Porto is half Korean and Campbell is half Chinese. “I was so proud of my mom’s diverse cooking, and so was Steve. Today, we even use Steve’s mom’s kimchee recipe,” she says. Campbell talks proudly of having used hot dogs to introduce kimchee to thousands of people who probably would have hesitated to try a Korean restaurant.
“‘Accessibility’ is the operative word,” Song adds. “Korilla, from its inception, was all about providing Korean cuisine to the masses. Our minimalist menu (rice bowls, burritos, tacos) was designed so that anyone would feel comfortable trying out Korilla whether they have never been introduced to Korean barbecue, or just needed a quick bite for lunch.”
For Falkowitz, Asian fusion food trucks like Korilla have helped make Asian cuisine, still perceived by many as a “boxed up culinary entity,” a bit more available. “What fusion food trucks can do is say, ‘Hey, let’s make this fun and bring it to a new audience that doesn’t want chop suey or stinky tofu,’” he says. “It opens a door between Asian and Western cuisine, which I think makes it more exciting for certain types of eaters.”
Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, believes that food trucks offer a more open space for experimentation: “There’s a pressure to be more authentic when you are talking about restaurants. In a food truck, with the lower price point and more casual eating environment, you can be more inventive, daring, take bigger risks.” Since food trucks are a novel purveyor of portable food—of which tacos, burritos, sandwiches, hot dogs, and burgers are dstaples—Asian ingredients such as kimchee and nori are perhaps a logical next step in enhancing what could be done in those formats.
However, Song is quick to point out the importance of distinguishing between Asian and Asian-American cuisine. “The former is food you would find in Asia, whereas the latter is a translation of the former in America, perhaps due to lack of accessibility to traditional ingredients or the need to change the flavor profile to accommodate your demographic,” Song says. “As far as Korilla and Korean cuisine is concerned, we are trying to create the quintessential Korean-American cuisine.”
These restaurants and food trucks represent a younger generation of Asian Americans, who have been raised in the United States but still remain true to their roots. “Young second and third generation Asian Americans wanting to break into the food scene have grown up on a fusion cuisine of sorts, no doubt,” Davis says. “This new trend is a natural evolution.”