The Food of Taiwan, and Home, at Wenwen


You’d be forgiven for assuming that a dish called BDSM Chicken, at Wenwen, a new Taiwanese restaurant in Greenpoint, is a marketing ploy—in not only its name (which stands for “brined, deboned, soy milk”) but also its availability, or lack thereof. One order is a whole bird, deep-fried, and just five are offered each day, beginning at 5 p.m., when the restaurant opens. People start lining up at 4:30; by 5:05, they’re gone.

But this scenario of scarcity was not intentional on the part of the chef Eric Sze and his business partner Andy Chuang, who own Wenwen as well as the restaurant 886, in the East Village. “I’ve been working on deboning chicken since 2019,” Sze told me the other day. One challenge of cooking a chicken whole is that the breasts finish faster than the legs, which are denser, with a higher bone-to-flesh ratio. He knew that spatchcocking the bird helped—but wouldn’t removing the bones insure that it would cook even more uniformly, and faster?

A loophole for trying the BDSM Chicken is a sandwich featuring just the thigh (far left), available only at brunch, but it’s hardly the only consolation prize on a menu packed with dishes inspired by those which the chef and co-owner Eric Sze grew up eating at home in Taiwan, and by those he eats at home in New York now.

Experiments commenced at 886, using what are known as “yellow fat chickens,” sourced from Flushing Live Poultry, which are fed a diet high in beta-carotene. The result (whose recipe just happened to lend itself to the acronym) was a resounding success, and “a spectacle,” Sze said, an obvious centerpiece of any Wenwen meal. But frying a whole chicken (twice, per the final formula) requires a whole fryer. Wenwen was set up with only two fryers, and the kitchen wouldn’t be able to produce the rest of the menu with just one. Five chickens at 5 p.m. it was.

Thanks to the soy-milk-based batter, which is whipped with sweet-potato starch and tofu for extra lift and crunch, the BDSM’s exterior is exceptionally craggy and crisp. Finished with “Taiwan dust” (white pepper, MSG, sugar, and salt) plus smoked paprika, turmeric, and curry powder, it cracks open to reveal luscious meat punctuated by pockets of the promised yellow fat. If you can’t swing a 4:30 p.m. arrival, there’s a loophole: brunch, when the thigh is served on a roll, accompanied by nori-flecked fries.

Also available at brunch: battered and fried sweet-potato-custard-stuffed French toast, made with milk bread sourced from Chinatown and topped with ice cream and five-spice honey.

But the sandwich is far from the only consolation prize. As opposed to 886’s party vibe, Wenwen’s guiding principle is comfort, inspired by the food that Sze grew up eating in Taipei, and by the way he eats at home. The restaurant is named for his mother, Wenchi, and his wife, Wenhui; both Wens make a version of Sze’s shell-on, head-on Huadiao Shrimp, which are glossed in a tantalizing sauce of ginger, scallion, garlic, and ketchup and served with sliced scallion mantou, or steamed bun, for sopping.

A pork-collar paigu, or cutlet, is almost hidden on the menu, as an add-on to an unflashy bowl of fried rice called Lily Flemming (an Anglicized play on the Mandarin for “every grain distinct”). Marinated in five spice, rice wine, and sugar, the collar is battered in a mix of coarse and fine sweet-potato starch, which makes it as craggy as the chicken. For a dose of greens, there are pea shoots that have collapsed into silk in a wok, strewn with pleasingly spongy tofu skin, or water spinach that’s been stir-fried with shrimp paste and tiny, pungent dried shrimp, both dishes punctuated with generous handfuls of roughly chopped garlic.

Sze, who has an almost academic knowledge of Taiwan’s culinary history—and a deep desire to explore and preserve it—shared a few theories for why Taiwanese food skews sweet: the influence of Shanghainese arrivals in the nineteen-fifties, after the Chinese Civil War; the use of sugar, once a limited commodity, as a way to broadcast wealth. It might come as a surprise, then, that Wenwen’s single (spectacular) dessert—inspired by treats at what Sze described as an “ice-cream-burrito stall” in Yilan, in northern Taiwan—leans savory. Piping-hot tangyuan, traditional Chinese glutinous-rice balls, are deep-fried and filled with black-sesame paste, then nestled with scoops of vanilla ice cream, drizzled in condensed milk, and showered in chopped cilantro, candied peanuts, and dehydrated-peanut-butter powder—“a loose interpretation of a very Taiwanese pairing,” Sze said. (Dishes $8-$52.) ♦


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