A restaurant in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge serving hand-pulled noodles bobbing in steamy broth or hissing in a fiery wok typically conjures images of Chinatown. But on the other side of the bridge, a Mexican Salvadoran chef — whose only other experience cooking Asian food professionally was slinging sushi at Disney World — is making a gonzo rendition of Taiwanese beef noodles on a portable induction burner in Dumbo, all by himself.
Lucky Rabbit Noodles takes up approximately 300 square feet of Brooklyn almost directly beneath the Manhattan Bridge. It’s got cherry red walls with photos of every dish, a neon noodle bowl sign, a handful of Ikea stools, and one employee, chef and owner Jeremy Dean. Just a few months into the pandemic, Dean, who’s lived around the corner for over a decade, opened this spot as a vegan corner deli called Vodega. By late 2020 it became clear to Dean that, “the vegan thing wasn’t going to work.” “I had a choice,” he says. “I could just get rid of the space, cut my losses; go find a job — or I could switch.”
So, he switched, transforming the space into Lucky Rabbit Noodles in early 2021. The noodles and dumplings that Dean is concocting here, some of which are still vegan, draw less on his New York cooking resume — Rebar, Fresh & Co, Clover Club — than on the things he learned while backpacking through Asia and selling Philly cheesesteaks from a food truck in Bangkok.
When it comes to describing his food, he treads lightly. “When I had Vodega,” he says, “someone tried to call me out about cultural appropriation, appropriating ‘bodegas.’ I’m 100-percent Latin. That’s my world, but I don’t want to deal with that, so I stay away from ‘authentic,’ I stay away from ‘traditional,’ It’s just food, man. It’s good food.”
His dish “beef noods,” makes this point succinctly, a riff on Taiwanese beef noodle soup that is both totally untraditional and just straight-up good. Dean wanted something richer and fattier than the typical brothy version, so he braises a brisket overnight in a pot of chicken stock and mirepoix on his plug-in griddle, pulls all the fat off in the morning, chucks it in a blender with the braising liquid and whirs it into what’s basically a hyper-luxurious brown gravy. It’s the trinity of salt, fat, and umami, laced with mushroom seasoning and Maggi, ginger and five-spice, sugar, and vinegar.
This silky sauce — it’s a far cry from broth — bubbles away in a flat-bottomed wok with hunks and shards of the braised brisket; Thai basil; and fat, chewy noodles (bought in Brooklyn’s Chinatown), which slurp up the gravy and thicken it with starch. Dean semi-carefully scrapes it into a giant plastic bowl before applying the finishing touches: a drizzle of garlic butter, ginger-scallion sauce, fried shallots, scallions, and pickled ginger. It’s $22 for two pounds of food. Feel free to do the math.
You’d be hard-pressed to know you were eating a dish with roots in Lanzhou and Taiwan. (With a few slight flavor detours along the way, this brisket and gravy situation could be equally at home over a pile of mashed potatoes.) The disconnects between Dean’s dishes and their sources of inspiration almost always feel refreshing rather than disappointing. Like orange chicken made by simmering and blending whole mandarins; mushroom and sweet potato dumplings rolled lazily into tubes; or thin, springy noodles bathing in vegan garlic butter — aka margarine.
There’s nothing grandiose about Lucky Rabbit; it feels like a guy shopping for groceries in Chinatown and throwing them together the way he wants to eat them — in a kitchen with no walk-in, no gas, and no help. Is it anything like those iconic noodle shops on the other side of the bridge? Not really. But that’s just fine with Dean.
“New York births new things and new ideas,” he says. “I’m figuring it out as I go; it’s falling into place.”