One of the most important things to know about Eric Sze and Andy Chuang’s Taiwanese hot spot Wenwen — where Sze occasionally squirts baijiu cocktail shots straight into customers’ mouths — is that you will witness quite a few patrons slurping giant Long Island iced teas through straws.
That beverage, the latest trash drink to make a mini-revival, is typically a mix of vodka, gin, rum, tequila, sour mix, and Coke. Here in Greenpoint, the bartenders put a slight tweak on the inflatable pool party classic. They drop the vodka for aromatic amaro Montenegro, replace the tequila with mezcal, and put the entire concoction into a glass wide enough to serve as a small aquarium. The bartenders also throw in a bit of fresh citrus juice — a common touch, though it’s a little like sprinkling vitamin C powder onto a bag of marshmallows — and float a flaming lime on top. The price, surely the product of rigorous liquor cost analysis, is $69.
As someone who sampled the single serving for $19, I confirm that it works. It doesn’t taste like much; imagine sugar water with a hint of smoke. It goes down as easily as a Snapple, it gets you drunk quickly, and it chills the palate nicely after a golden square of fried tofu scorches your tongue with hot juices. Whether that drink — or the tofu — is the type of thing you want to wait a month in advance for, given the current reservations situation, is a different question.
Sze, along with Chuang, also runs 886, a casual Taiwanese stir-fry shop in the East Village serving small plates for $16 or less. The low-key hangout also hawks $25 Red Bull cocktails that come with two free shots if you and a buddy finish the bowl-sized drink in six seconds. Wenwen shares some of that boozy DNA with its Manhattan counterpart, but it also aims for a bit more elegance. The restaurant offers lard-slicked bass, uni-topped sticky rice, and whole fried chickens that sell out so fast — the kitchen makes just five every night — that they disappear within seconds of the venue’s opening time. Or for a bit more color, here’s how the owners publicly describe the ethos of their sophomore spot: “If 886 was the go-to rager in your 20s, then Wenwen is the dinner party you learn to love in your 30s.”
Modern Taiwanese restaurants have been experiencing a mini-boom of sorts over the past half decade or so — a reality that’s likely fueled in part by a robust student population from abroad (though enrollments from neighboring China have been falling, post-COVID). There’s Win Son in Bushwick, with its stretchy oyster omelets, sloppy baos, and mochi doughnuts; Ho Foods in the East Village, where the lu rou fan is so precise one wonders if the chef personally paints each grain of rice with lard; as well as 886 and the city’s burgeoning boba tea parlors.
Wenwen’s cooking, alas, doesn’t always quite rise to the level one might expect from a restaurant that books up so far in advance, but like fellow party spots Zou Zou’s or Sushi on Me, it can still be a riotously fun time — especially after a cocktail. Here are a few standouts:
Celtuce, a lettuce prized for its thick stem, is a common ingredient in Taiwanese cuisine. This preparation, however, leans more towards Sichuan. Sze cuts the vegetable into spaghetti-like noodles, marinates them in soy, and serves them in a tiny cup for slurping and munching. The crunchy celtuce delivers a chill to your digestive tract, then numbs the tongue and throat with peppercorns. There’s your edible AC system for a hot summer day in Brooklyn.
Wenwen offers two options where shrimp play the lead role, the better of which are lettuce cups. Sze presents a pleasant dice of ground shrimp, fried youtiao, and jicama. Each bite is a wallop of maritime sugars, fragrant root vegetables, and chewy doughnut pieces. You scoop up everything into a romaine leaf and crunch away. Pass on the Hudiao shrimp, however. Sze slathers the shell-on crustaceans with a thick Shaoxing-laced tomato sauce heady with a tang that recalls good sherry. But still, the chef doesn’t get the shells crisp enough and the shrimp are somewhat bland.
The surf & turf
In a Hakka-style stir-fry, pork and squid are typically the raw materials. Here, Sze adapts his mother’s recipe, pairing slow-cooked belly meat with cuttlefish. Black sugar, rock sugar, and palm sugar in the braising liquid give the pork a compelling sweetness, while the tender cephalopod exhibits a delicate, oceanic finish. Pair with rice to sop up all the meaty sauces.
Wenwen offers niu rou mian, or beef noodle soup, as well as cold sesame noodles, but for starches, diners should consider a decidedly harder-to-find preparation. Sze makes a great rendition of you fan, a glutinous rice dish often served at Lunar New Year. The kitchen adds a subtle American touch by replacing l fresh pork belly with Nueske’s bacon. The fat slices impart the chewy, sticky grains with an aggressive dose of smoke, while mushrooms add earthiness, and five-spice adds aromatic sweetness. It’s a near-perfect dish, though on a follow-up visit, the rice suffered from an odd sandiness. (Diners can add uni for a supplement.)
Banana liqueur gives a Negroni a whisper of tropical aromas. Brazilian cachaca and bird’s eye chile lend a daiquiri a touch of funk and heat. Modern restaurant cocktails rarely improve upon the classics (or keep pace with good bars), but beverage director Morgan Robison manages to do just that with his subtle adjustments. And the good news is that even if you don’t have a reservation, you can still swing by and have one of those drinks in the standing room foyer.
In an even more promising development, I hear it’s easier these days to walk in, and that Wenwen is considering cutting down the advance reservation time to two weeks. “Doing one month in advance is stupid,” Sze writes via email, adding that serving small snacks in the front room might be in the cards as well. Dropping by for the cool celtuce would be a nice way to spend an hour or so in June, along with a strong cocktail to make everything wonderfully blurry.