Restaurateurs Eric Sze and Andy Chuang have become synonymous with New York’s upcoming Taiwanese food scene. The duo made an impression, first with Sze’s East Village noodle shop the Tang, then later with 886, an acclaimed restaurant modeled after the stir fry shops of their native Taiwan. And somewhere over the last half-decade of working in Manhattan, the young restaurateurs developed a reputation: They’re rowdy, Chuang proudly admits. Their customers call for bottles of soju, throw back reverse sake bombs (a tall cup of sake served with a shot of beer), and slurp flaming bowls of alcohol through boba straws as part of drinking challenges.
But almost four years after opening 886, the restaurateurs are growing up — or at least making an honest effort to try to. Sze is ready to step out with more ambitious dishes that weren’t a fit on the more casual menu at 886, while Chuang, who manages the restaurants, is up for the challenge of overseeing a 60-seat dining room with a full-service bar. On Wednesday, March 16, the duo will give it a go with the opening of Wenwen, a grown-up Greenpoint restaurant where the chairs have backs, the music isn’t as loud, and, yes, baijiu shots are still occasionally ordered.
“When immature people grow up, they don’t just stop doing stupid things,” Chuang tells Eater. “We want to keep things light.” If 886 is the kind of place the young restaurateurs wanted to hangout at in their mid-twenties, then Wenwen, at 1025 Manhattan Avenue, near Green Street, is a restaurant for the next decade of their lives.
The menu borrows a few dishes from 886 — its fly’s head, popcorn chicken, and pea shoots with tofu skins all make an appearance here — but overall, Sze is leaning into large plates meant for sharing. “Eric always wanted to do big format dishes,” Chuang says. “That’s where I think he enjoys cooking the most.”
Sze is loading up plates with whole steamed fish, or otherwise doling out saucy pieces of pork belly with cuttlefish. The best example of this might be his so-called “BDSM” chicken — “brined, deboned, soy milk,” according to a footnote at the bottom of the menu — which is fried whole with its talons still on, then dissected using a butcher’s cleaver. It’s a painstaking process that only allows for around five of the $52 birds to be made each night. The chef is already getting messages about reserving them when he opens this week.
Much of the menu pays homage to Sze’s mother, Wen, who accounts for half of the restaurant’s name. (The other half comes from his wife, also named Wen.) “This restaurant is based on homesickness,” according to the chef, who hasn’t been back to his home on the outskirts of Taipei since signing his restaurant’s lease two years ago. He’s riffing on dishes that might have shown up on his dinner table growing up, like a “numbing” celtuce salad with Sichuan peppers and lettuce cups meant for scooping up shrimp floss and fried youtiao.
For the first time since opening 886, the restaurateurs will also able to sell cocktails — sake and soju were included in their beer and wine license in the East Village, but hard liquor was not. Morgan Robison, who previously worked at 886, is holding down the bar with a menu of classic drinks that have been turned up a notch using ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns and bird’s eye chiles.
There won’t be drinking challenges, but Robison, Sze, and Chuang have cooked up plenty of ways to keep things fun. One, named the Shyboy 4XL, is a Long Island iced tea served with four straws in a massive goblet and topped with a flaming piece of youtiao. It’s priced at $69 (because of course it is), and though it resembles one of the drinking challenges at 886 (a bowl of red wine, soju, sake, and Red Bull called the “bad idea challenge”), it’s not meant to be chugged. “It’s actually a really nice cocktail,” Sze says. By the glass, it costs $19.
On other tables, tequila shots served in sets of four might appear. They can look innocuous enough, especially in the hands of Chuang, a friendly, roaming presence in the Wenwen dining room, but concealed among them is a single shot of baijiu. The restaurant calls this $25 round of shots a “flight roulette.”
The team is going for a 1980s disco vibe, and the dining room is outfitted with Taiwanese liquor licenses and night market toys that the team imported from Taiwan. That theme is probably most apparent in the restaurant’s bathrooms, which are outfitted with disco balls, spinning lights, and a Listerine station because, well, “we all spent two years behind a mask and know how bad our breath smells,” Sze says. As much as the restaurant’s food, these rooms have already been well-documented on Instagram.
The party vibes might have something to do with the fact that Sze and Chuang met as undergraduate students at New York University. Chuang was the president of the university’s Taiwanese student association, as the story goes, and he desperately needed volunteers for a singing competition the group organized. Sze obliged, and in performing for an audience of 200 people, met his business partner.
Sze graduated ahead of Chuang and went on to open the Tang, a now-closed noodle shop in the East Village, followed by 886, a restaurant that was meant to address the lack of Taiwanese drinking spots in New York City at that time. “You had your Korean pochas and you have your Japanese izakayas, but there was no real Taiwanese place you could eat and drink a lot of alcohol at the same time,” Sze says.
He opened the business with Chuang in 2018, and channeling the boisterous, late-night energy of Saint Marks Place, found a following in homesick Taiwanese folks and twenty-something New Yorkers looking to chase bites of blood sausage with Gold Medal beer. Now in a residential corner of Greenpoint, the restaurateurs are going for it again and seeing what sticks. “We want it to be more mature,” Sze says, “but also show that grown-up people can have fun, too.”
After all, the restaurant stays open an hour later than 886 on Sundays. Wenwen is open Wednesday to Sunday, from 5 to 11 p.m.