For years, Trigg Brown and Josh Ku joked with just a tinge of sincerity about opening a restaurant together. Or was it the other way around: a lot of sincerity wrapped up in a casual attitude?
Granted, it is an easy joke to toss between a chef and a property manager who both share a love for good Taiwanese food. After they met, the pair started going to Flushing to dine at the restaurants Ku — who is of Taiwanese descent — grew up going to. They bonded over traditional dishes like flies’ head, constantly talked about the cuisine, and worked through many recipes. After several years of “seriously joking,” Brown, 28, and Ku, 29, opened Win Son, a Taiwanese-American restaurant located in East Williamsburg.
But before the restaurant came their friendship. Five or six years ago they met at a barbecue — more specifically, a backyard barbecue for residents in Brown’s apartment building in Bed-Stuy, where Ku’s friend also lived. They’d met before, but once they started talking about Taiwanese food, they knew there was the potential to open a restaurant together, even though only one of them was in the industry and neither considered himself an expert on the cuisine. While Brown was a sous chef who’d helped open Upland — or, as he says, “Justin Smillie helped me work for him” — Ku’s first real leap into the restaurant industry was Win Son. In his past life, Ku had a property management company and worked with low-income housing and Section 8 properties.
Brown attributes his interest in Taiwanese food to his mentor and the “guiding force in [his] life and career,” Pei Jen Chang, whom he met in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the time, Brown worked at the Keswick Hall and Golf Club where he cooked “upscale country club food” under Chang, who is Chinese-American with family from Taiwan. When Chang was offered to take over at nearby restaurant TEN Sushi, Brown followed, and he learned how to cook Japanese food under Chang’s mentorship. Then came stints at Craft, Heritage Radio, and Upland. He gained valuable lessons from those experiences and made important connections. (Not only does he still use pork from Heritage Food at Win Son, but he also met his girlfriend, Patty Lee, on the line at Craft.) Those encounters, along with Ku’s experience, made for a patchwork of experiences that helped build Win Son.
Though Brown says it “felt like subconsciously — well, consciously — we just didn't like what we were doing at the time,” there was no easy decision to actually open the restaurant. It wasn’t a clear, step-by-step progression to how Win Son materialized on the corner of Montrose and Graham Avenues. It took a few years of that mutual joking-but-not-really vibe, and it wasn’t until the space itself landed in their lap, as well as a fortuitous gift of an industrial stove, that they put their lofty goal into motion.
It was Ku’s work with property management that led them to 159 Graham Avenue, Win Son’s current home. Ku was “vanilla boxing” the restaurant — setting up basics of the empty space — but the interested parties weren’t able to successfully close deals with the landlord. “It was a raw space that needed quite a bit of work,” Ku says. Then he had the opportunity to lease it, and he “just kinda took the deal.”
Space secured, their idea moved along. They decided to open a restaurant serving what they call Taiwanese-American cuisine — food with an emphasis on the food traditions of the country but cooked through a New American lens, incorporating local, well-sourced ingredients. They named it Win Son, after Ku’s grandfather’s old textile company — the name means abundance, which felt like a good sign. The two prepared for the opening by devouring Cathy Erway’s book, The Food of Taiwan; going to Tainan City and “smashing” oyster omelettes on Guohua Street; and just being wide-eyed, interested, and eager to learn about the cuisine and culture.
Being owners of one of the few Taiwanese restaurants in Brooklyn, it’s not unusual for Brown and Ku to hear broad, sweeping generalizations of the menu they serve. Customers tend to lump the food in with other Asian cuisines: “Do you guys have pad Thai?” is not an uncommon question. And on the other end of the spectrum, people assume they’re trying to dumb down the dishes for unfamiliar palates. Brown once got asked, "Oh what is that, like, hipster Asian food?" Needless to say, he wasn’t happy about the question. “No. Fuck you, man. We take ourselves seriously.” After a few breaths he says more calmly, “It's Taiwanese food through our lens.”
These are opportunities for education, the duo believes. On the most basic level, they try to achieve it through their menu. When a guest reads Taiwanese words next to descriptions on the menu, Brown and Ku hope it’s building an association. One of their goals is to help foster interactions like these so that, soon, it will be more commonplace for people to understand the difference between Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines. They by no means want anyone’s meal to be transformed into a long, uncomfortable lesson. But Brown says, “There are a lot of stories behind food, and you're communicating a lot more than just dinner.” Small steps are victories, too.
They don’t want to stop at well-worded menus, though. They’ve spent a lot of time talking about authenticity and how to communicate their message in a way that feels respectful to the cultures — all heavy, but important topics to discuss — together and with friends like Andrew Chau from Boba Guys. But after a while, they realized talking amongst themselves was like being in “an echo chamber without any outside perspective that we can connect with.” They wanted a real platform, and what more of a perfect medium than a podcast. Theirs (coming soon) will be produced by their friend Ashok Kondabolu, known by some as Dapwell, who does a little food writing of his own. Brown and Ku look forward to creating dialogue and discussion on their podcast, hopefully with Taiwanese Americans — like Jeremy Lin and Eddie Huang — who are making waves in their respective industries.
There’s quite a bit of weight for two Americans — albeit one is Taiwanese American — running a Taiwanese restaurant to shoulder, especially because they don’t have any formal training in the cuisine. It can be a precarious balance to grow a business in Brooklyn while remaining true to the cuisine, and the team is careful not to cross any lines. Taiwanese cuisine itself is a myriad of food traditions from various regions, and it’s hard to capture the scope of it in one restaurant run by Americans. But like Brown said, the food at Win Son is Taiwanese food through their New American lens, made to feed their diverse neighborhood at a fair price.
That’s not to say that Brown and Ku take too many liberties with their dishes just because they deem them “Taiwanese-American.” The pair know — and I mean, know — about the food they are serving. From the history to the traditional elements of each dish, they have a genuine understanding of what they’re dealing with. They are extra-conscious about the alterations they make to dishes, and the implications of those changes as well.
Brown uses their lu rou fan as an example of a dish that was altered in order to work for Win Son. A small bowl of rice topped with some — but not too much — pork, it’s traditionally served as a side. The star is not the meat, but the unctuous, rendered pork fat that “gilds every grain of rice,” Brown tells me. (He has a degree in English literature from the University of Virginia, and often his choice of words flaunts it.) To make it slightly more appealing to American diners, Brown and Ku sized up the dish and added a little more meat sauce, pickled Chinese broccoli, a drizzle of chile vinaigrette, a gooey soy egg, and sliced scallions — all welcome additions to a simple, but well-loved and much eaten, dish. Brown and Ku claim to like this so much they eat it every single day. “It’s probably not good for you to eat every day,” Brown says with a shrug.
Brown is probably right, but there's more to do at Win Son than just eat. Yes, Win Son's Instagram page — like every other tech-savvy Brooklyn restaurant — is heavy on the well-lit and flattering photos of its dishes. But among the bowls of danzi mian with seared South Carolina shrimp (a homage to the history of the dish) and sloppy baos with pork and peanuts spilling onto the plate, there are also bright bursts of art, usually created by artist Massimo Mongiardo and illustrator Jackson Epstein. These posts are not just for looks; they're announcements for parties, benefits, and chef collaborations.
Initially, these events were a way to draw people to the restaurant, even if the guests didn't try the food. "At least they know we exist — and hopefully come back," Ku says. After time, it turned into a monthly meetup, a home base of sorts, for people to relax and hang out. Ku's musician and producer friends — like three resident DJ's Space People, Gabriel Garzon-Montano, and Armando Young — are "really making moves right now." He claims their support is what makes these events successful just as much as the food. The dining collaborations, too, showcase young talent in the restaurant industry — some are doing quite well — and the duo keeps doing them for one reason: Folks looked out for them when they were first starting out and they want to return the favor to help other chefs.
Win Son is relatively young, just over a year old, but Brown and Ku already have plans to open up a second restaurant soon. (This time, of course, the space will come after the concept.) Ku wants a new car; Brown might put his degree to use and write a biography about Payson Dennis, a teacher of his who has a “crazy story.” Those are long terms plans, though. For now, Brown and Ku are doing what they do best: getting their neighborhood closely acquainted with Taiwanese cuisine and lifting up their friends as they succeed one podcast episode, collaboration, or bowl of lu rou fan at a time.