Behind an old-school bodega-like awning Josh Ku and Trigg Brown are putting the finishing touches on Win Son, their brand new Taiwanese-American restaurant, officially opening on Thursday. The place has an unassuming facade (I almost walked right past it, actually), but is home to a relatively spacious neighborhood eatery awash in natural light. Win Son lies somewhere between upscale and approachable, but with an angle on one Asian cuisine that’s surprising enough to turn all sorts of heads.
The sun-bleached exterior fits in with the block, but manages to avoid the cheesy (and often annoying) speakeasy no-sign thing– instead, Win Son’s name is clearly painted across the awning. But peek through the windows, and you’ll see the interior looks far from the old-school diner that once occupied this place– it’s clean, with modern lines and designer light fixtures, bright-white subway tiles, and a generous bar with a greenish-granite finish, all features that make these digs sparkle. But the restaurant also has DIY charm, with raw-wood shelving for the liquor bottles, an artfully splotchy paint job– having been built-out by the owners and their friends, it comes with chill vibes and unbridled green plants. Even the tables and bankettes were handmade by the owners’ friends.
The corner side of the resto occupies what used to be El Brilliant Restaurant, a neighborhoody Latin diner that closed a handful of years ago. To expand the Win Son floor space, the partners knocked down a wall and incorporated a defunct hair salon, another business that had been closed for years. “The hair salon was vacant for a while even before the Dominican spot closed,” Josh a native New Yorker, whose family owns the building, explained.
Trigg also has ties to the area, though unlike Josh, he’s a transplant from Virginia who, fresh out of college, moved to Bushwick to settle down and work in the NYC restaurant scene.
According to the partners, there’s been goodwill on the block, as their neighbors have watched a new place arrive on the scene. “Danny from Danny’s Pizza across the street, told us, ‘You guys are gonna do great if you open up there,'” Trigg recalled. “He said that it was always a neighborhood favorite. And that’s one of our ambitions, is providing a new spot for people in the community, whether they’re people who have been here forever, new-arrivals, young professionals, young kids our age, or…”
“Or the priest across the street,” Josh said. “We want to cater to everyone here.”
After two years of demo and buildout, the grand opening has been a long time coming, and unlike a lot of newbie restauranteurs (don’t let their super-young faces fool you) Josh and Trigg seem to have thought of everything. They’ve even been doing Win Son pop-ups for a while now– one with Yumpling (a dumpling maker with a cult following) and another at Craft– which served as opportunities to try out their dishes on foodie people and generate interest. Trig’s cooked in kitchens since he was 16, working everywhere from a Japanese izakaya to under the wing of Justin Smillie at Upland.
Josh, on the other hand, is the business guy. “I worked in a Starbucks and as a back waiter for a summer. So really, I have no restaurant experience,” he admitted. “My experience is in real estate and property management and construction.”
But Josh, whose family is Taiwanese, holds the spiritual core of Win Son. As a kid growing up on Long Island (Josh was born in Jamaica, Queens), he was surrounded by the food that inspired Win Son’s menu. Josh also spent some time living in Taiwan with his grandparents, where he attended Chinese school around the age of 7.
After planning the restaurant together, the two took a trip to Taiwan (where they spent most of their time in the south) to conduct their research on primary sources. “We stayed with Josh’s friends and family for over a month,” Trigg recalled. “We ate all around the country– from night markets to friend’s dinner tables to nice restaurants and back-alley kitchens– we experienced pretty much the full gamut.” However, the two are adamant that they’re not attempting to make authentic Taiwanese food. “Old-school authentic Taiwanese food, to us, is xiao tsu, “small eats”– that’s like real Taiwanese food in our view,” Trigg explained. “It would be fun to open up a xiao tsu place, but right now we’re just riffing on dishes.”
I wondered what exactly constitutes Taiwanese food. As fare from a region with a complex history and inextricable ties to mainland China, that answer is a fairly complicated one. “Taiwanese food [like Chinese food] is also very diverse, but in a different way because Taiwan is very small, it’s the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined, or something,” Josh explained. “There’s a lot of spheres of influence, it’s been occupied by many nations throughout its existence. Taiwan’s always had sort of an identity issue, and that ties in with the food. Whereas Chinese food is varied based on multi-regional traditions, Taiwanese is varied more through time.”
“In the south, there’s this old school vibe and in Taipei, it’s this huge multicultural metropolis– and all these regional foods in China have representation in Taiwan, because all these Chinese refugees went to Taiwan due to the political situation,” Trigg added. “Through drinking and eating we’ve been exploring that question ourselves, you know– What is Taiwanese food? And we’ve made some interesting conclusions.”
The menu at Win Son ($5-$17) reflects both Trigg and Josh’s interpretation of Taiwanese food, and the plethora of influences available to a multicultural society like Taiwan. There are vaguely familiar items like turnip cake with scallion and omelette. “That’s something people will probably recognize from Cantonese dim sum,” Trigg explained. “But we had that wrapped in omelette for breakfast almost every morning in Taiwan.”
Dan dan noodles make an appearance on the menu too, though with a slight variation on the sesame peanut noodle dish, served here with pork, garlic confit, and scallion pancake. Less familiar are offerings like “three cups chicken” served with oyster mushrooms and fried chicken livers. And Trigg’s creativity really shines through with dishes like the fried eggplant served with black vinegar, labneh (strained yogurt, traditionally a Middle Eastern dish), and spiced cashews.
Win Son has a full bar, something the duo have made an effort to Taiwan-ify as well. “We’re pushing Taiwan drinking culture by offering Taiwan beer and with some of our paraphernalia,” Trigg explained. That includes 4 oz. drinking cups that look something like the soju receptacles you find at Korean spots. “There were these beer halls in Taiwan where the food was fun and simple, and great for groups–you’d see families and friends in there,” he said. “We want to recreate that vibe in an American fashion.”
The “group-friendly” food menu also reflects the beer hall approach. “The vibe in here is festive, it gets loud– but not too loud,” Trigg added.
There’s also a cocktail program, of course, with house-made sour, fresh ingredients, and all that jazz. “We tried to pair them well with the food, and have something for everyone,” Josh said. The idea was to avoid having too many too-complicated drinks, but there are plenty of creative sippers like the Taipei Sour (chili-infused Johnnie Walker, egg white, lemon, lime, simple syrup, basil) and the Xiao Hu Special (Elijah Craig, blood orange Amaro, and Five Spice bitters). For the amateur tippler, there are offerings like the Teresa Teng (cucumber vodka, lemon, velvet falernum), what Trigg called their “white-girl cocktail,” named for a Taiwanese pop star.
The partners declined to announce who their bar manager is just yet, but Josh hinted that, “He’s done the beverage program for a number of top-notch restaurants in the city.” Trigg added that, “He’s a Bushwick guy too.”
While Win Son isn’t the only Taiwanese place in the city, it’s definitely the only one in East Williamsburg. Of course, there are traditional Taiwanese places in areas like Flushing and Elmhurst, Queens, and hipster-Taiwanese spots like Eddie Huang’s Baohaus, but Josh and Trigg have definitely struck a new vein. Win Son, for example, doesn’t even have bao– maybe the most recognizable Taiwanese dish– on the menu. “It’s not that we think we’re better than bao,” Trigg explained. “We just think that people have already hopped on that, and we’re trying to show that there’s a wide variety of food that represents Taiwan.”
Win Son is located at 159 Graham Avenue in East Williamsburg. Grand opening is Thursday May 19 5:30 pm to 11 pm.