It’s impossible to talk to the chef Deuki Hong without talking about chicken. For him, almost every waking moment is spent thinking about it, making it or eating it. Mr. Hong has spent years perfecting the crispy, glass-like skin of his famous barbecued chicken, but he’s also a fan of American fried chicken. “I won’t lie. I love Popeye’s,” he said. “The seasoning is the right level of spice. I grew up on KFC and I remember the first time I had Popeye’s I was angry at my mom. I said, ‘Why now? Why did you deprive me of this?’."
That love of the classic American fast-food style is evident in the fried chicken sandwich on the menu at Sunday at the Museum, a new cafe at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, where Mr. Hong runs the kitchen. But it also reflects the culinary heritage of Mr. Hong’s Korean background: It’s served hot on a spongy, almost fluffy steamed bao bun and garnished with cucumbers, caramelized onions and a garlic aioli sauce — a perfect textural contrast to the chicken.
The revamped dining space is part of the museum’s $90 million expansion. Mr. Hong, who has worked alongside lauded chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Chang, wants visitors to experience Asian cuisines without the clichés. Threading the needle between exotic and familiar, though, was tricky.
“We couldn’t do pigs ears and all these crazy things we thought about,” Mr. Hong said. “We really didn’t want to alienate museum guests.” Instead, he taps into the nostalgia for the Bay Area’s substantial Asian population — and the palate of likely visitors to the museum — with dishes that are relatively familiar, but done well, like the garlic prawn noodles. (“If you’re Chinese-American, you definitely grew up eating them,” he said.)
Born in South Korea, Hong moved to Dallas with his family when he was a year old. But his mother wasn’t happy there. One day she made an executive decision to return to Korea. “She was just like, I’m done,” Mr. Hong recalled. “She said at least let’s go see the Statue of Liberty, and then we’ll go back to Korea.”
They never left New York. Mr. Hong’s mother finally found her people and Mr. Hong found baseball, Jacques Pépin on PBS and a home economics teacher who nurtured his desire to cook.
The cafe menu includes milk-tea drinks from the Boba Guys (the company’s founders, Andrew Chau and Bin Chen, are Mr. Hong’s partners at the restaurant), kid bento boxes and avocado toast, that trendy, sometimes derided indulgence. “I can’t believe I just put avocado toast on the menu,” Hong said. “But we do it on Japanese milk bread with a miso spread, so there’s an Asian influence there.”
The restaurant is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., serving tea, coffee and pastries, and a full menu from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A limited menu is offered on Thursday evenings, when the museum is open late. Among the standouts are the manila clams with fish sauce, chilies and miso paste with butter served over egg noodles, and the bo ssam, crispy pork belly wrapped in perilla leaves and served with an Asian pear kimchi.
The name of the restaurant comes from Mr. Hong’s belief in the importance of taking a day off. For him, that means going to church and staying out of the kitchen.
But for now, Monday, when the cafe is closed, is his Sunday.
Sunday at the Museum, 200 Larkin Street; 415-581-3500; asianart.org/regular/sunday-at-the-museum-cafe. An average meal for two, without drinks or tip, is $40. No museum admission required.
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