Serious Eats: New York
In The Midnight Hour: Rhong-Tiam Express
Open Until: 2:00 am, Fri-Sat; 11:00 pm, Sun-Thu
Drinking Until: close, 7 days
Food Until: close, 7 days
After shuttering both locations of his popular Rhong-Tiam restaurants last year, Andy Yang is on a comeback expansion tear--but don't go calling him another Michael Bao Huynh just yet. The peripatetic Huynh, who saw two of his concepts come and go in the space (Bia Garden and Chinito), was set to open a joint venture with Yang called Andy 'N' Bao that never materialized. The location is now Bao-less. Instead, Orchard Street sweats to the chili-laden beat of fast-casual Thai from Rhong-Tiam Express, and Steve Ells, who is launching a fast-casual Southeast Asian concept of his own, may have very good reason to watch his back. Despite minor opening setbacks, these bad boys are ripe for replication.
Playing to the strengths of its surroundings, this branch of Rhong-Tiam stays open 'til 2am on weekends and 11pm the rest of the week. The garden dining room isn't finished just yet, limiting seating in the snug subterranean confines to a small bar with room for five, but it will feature a separate menu of street-inspired plates. Graffiti artist Beau—whose work can also be seen at Huynh's reincarnation of BarBao (synergy!)—provides the stylized murals adorning the walls. On our visit, we met a Brooklyn man who sang the restaurant's praises, claiming he'd been four times in two weeks. He complained about the lack of good Thai restaurants in Brooklyn, and added, "It beats the [expletive] out of Popeyes" before meticulously spearing a bite of Yang's signature "Pork on Fire".
For a fast-casual concept, the menu is expansive, perhaps too much so. There are organic chicken nuggets, sliders, buffalo wings, salads, soups, "drunk man noodles" and Thai tacos, though Yang certainly gets points for incorporating a clever gluten-free logo into the design. Those tacos, by the way, are fine; their crispy shells suit the ingredients much better than the soft tortillas that plagued Huynh's Baorrito, but everything else we tried was leagues ahead. Reflecting the casual atmosphere, all dishes are served in to-go containers.
One such standout is the president bao ($5.50), a hunk of skin-on duck doused with an amalgam of familiar Asian flavors (sesame seeds, scallions, cilantro, cucumber, mayonnaise-based sauce) and cradled in... a potato roll? The flavors all come together nicely, and forgoing the traditional steamed bun lends the sandwich a starchy sweetness. However, the skin isn't as crispy as it could be (see: Ssam Bar's duck lunch), and we'd be remiss not to mention that there was a rib bone in one of the three bao we ordered. Still, taste is king in our book, and the flavors shine brightly enough to overshadow the dish's shortcomings.
Chef de cuisine Erik Cheah's recommendation, the fiery Southern style chicken ($14) is an exercise in dexterous spicing. Wok-seared bird gets tossed in fresh curry paste with kaffir lime leaves and bird's eye chili. The result is a dish that's hot upfront without being overpowering, the chilies bolstering the other flavors to bring out undulating notes of individual spices from the curry paste. The only reason to eat the accompanying white rice is to give your tongue a break from the thrill ride taking place betwixt your gums.
Blue crab fried rice ($13) finds meat from Maryland's official crustacean studded through an otherwise serviceable fried rice adorned with scallions and a stack of tomato and cucumber slices. While there could have been more actual crabmeat, the plate retains a pointedly sweet seafood flavor and aroma, and the whole shebang gets a jolt from an accompanying pungent mixture of bird's eye chili, fish sauce and soy. It's Thailand by way of HBO's The Wire. Sheeee-it.
Like his would-be partner, Yang is no stranger to the flirtations of NYC's dining blogosphere. Case in point: he hired buzzy teenage chef Greg Grossman to work the line. A beneficial arrangement for both, we're sure. But then again, working at a place that closes after midnight is a great way to get out of that pesky curfew. Parents just don't Bao-nderstand.
About the author: Zachary Feldman is a former debutante and current freelance writer. He makes hand-crafted, small batch bitters under the moniker Bitters, Old Men.