Editor’s note: The following story first appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Lo-Down’s print magazine. Since the magazine came out, there’s been more Clinton Street restaurant news. As we reported yesterday, Alias, the creative comfort food spot at 76 Clinton, might be closing after a decade on the LES to make room for a new seafood-centric restaurant from the team behind Wild Edibles.
When 71 Clinton Fresh Food opened with wunderkind chef Wylie Dufresne in 1999, it was widely credited with launching the Lower East Side’s fine dining scene. By the time Dufresne opened his own shop, the wildly successful wd~50, across the street four years later, the blocks of Clinton Street between Delancey and Houston seemed destined to become a hotbed of exciting new cuisine.
While Dufresne racked up award after award, though, the flow of restaurants around his destination dining spot surged and ebbed, never quite reaching critical mass. While Clinton Street Baking Company has drawn rave reviews and long, loyal brunch lines since arriving in 2001, and neighborhood joint Alias has demonstrated staying power, celebrating its 10-year anniversary last year, others that seemed destined for long-term success have come and then gone, most notably Falai and Frankie’s, which both closed in 2012. Countless others have opened to loud fanfare but then burned out quickly, such as Ed’s Lobster Bar.
With the growing popularity of two fledgling restaurants, Pig and Khao and Yunnan Kitchen, however, and the impending arrival of ramen hotshot Ivan Orkin, the tide may finally be rising for good on Clinton Street.
“We were definitely a little nervous about the location, given the stigma of Clinton Street,” said Mike Miloscia, the general manager of Pig and Khao, which opened in late September at 68 Clinton St., the former home of Falai. “We expected it to take a while to build up the business, but when we opened, we opened like gangbusters.”
A partnership between Top Chef contestant Leah Cohen and the team behind Fatty ’Cue and Fatty Crab, Pig and Khao offers a Thai-Filipino menu that has drawn complimentary critical reviews, including a spot on Eater’s “Where to Eat Right Now” list shortly after opening last fall, and a starred review from New York’s Adam Platt in January.
The southeast Asian menu contains plenty of the pork in the restaurant’s name, with the sizzling sisig (a dish of spicy pork head meat,with egg) being their top-seller. Another customer favorite is the khao soi (red curry with coconut milk, chicken and egg noodles) , which is one of the hottest items on the list. The whole fish in hot and sour broth is a must-try, as are the lamb ribs. The small plates run up to $15 each; the larger entrees between $25 and $30.
Five months in, many signs point to Pig and Khao’s upward trajectory. Its application for a full bar permit recently cleared the community board and is expected to win approval from state authorities in a few weeks (beer, wine, sangria and other punches are available now).A $39 chef’s tasting menu, available at the counter Monday through Wednesday, has expanded the food offerings and given trial runs to new dishes. Weekend brunch service is scheduled to debut in early March, Miloscia said. Last month, reservations for the restaurant’s 43 seats finally became available on OpenTable, which immediately boosted business during the mid-week and on either side of the 7-10 p.m. rush hour, when walk-in wait times can stretch uncomfortably long.
“People who live on the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, they’ve been reading about us and wanting to try us out, but they weren’t going to trek down here on the gamble that they might get a table,” Miloscia said. “We saw a dramatic increase in our destination diners right away.”
Local regulars are a big part of Pig and Khao’s business, Miloscia notes, happily. But bringing new faces to the block not only ensures the survival of his establishment; it helps other businesses, too.
“There’s definitely a vibe on this block that everyone wants their neighbors to do well,” Miloscia said. He sends his hungry patrons across the street to Donnybrook or Barramundi for a drink when their wait is long, since Pig and Khao’s waiting area gets cramped.
It goes both ways: when Pig and Khao’s owners sought to upgrade their liquor permit, other businesses nearby, including wd~50 and Streit’s matzo factory, circulated petitions for signatures. Meghan Joye, who owns Donnybrook and serves on Community Board 3, testified in favor.
That kind of communal support among neighboring business owners, while invisible to the average diner on a Saturday night, is one of the building blocks of a thriving commercial district. It’s one of several factors that have led to the bustling restaurant scene on Orchard Street between Grand and Delancey, for example.
Shortly after Yunnan Kitchen owner Erika Chou comes to work at her 10-month-old restaurant every day, her phone rings. It’s the owner of the VIP Bakery across the street, ordering Chou to come eat a sandwich.
“She’s become like my surrogate mom,” said Chou, who recently had the chance to return the favor when the bakery’s ice machine died.
Chou searched for eight months to find the right site for her first restaurant before choosing 79 Clinton St., the former home of Lucky variety store. Converting the long-time store into a large, gorgeous dining room with an open kitchen and a spacious bar was a “horrible and insane” undertaking, she said but once the build-out was finished, the restaurant itself has been smooth sailing.
Chou expanded her hours to be open on Tuesday nights over the winter, and traffic in her dining room is often brisk even mid-week. Media buzz, while not quite reaching the level of hype that the Fatty Crew generated up the street, has been steady, including a starred review from the New York Times and inclusion in the Michelin Guide’s “Bib Gourmand” list of lower-priced haute cuisine. Time Out New York named Yunnan’s lamb meatballs one of the 100 best foods in the city in October.
Yunnan’s cuisine, drawn primarily from the southwestern China province it is named for and overseen by Chef Travis Post, features share-size plates of cold and hot dishes, skewers called shao kao and bowls of noodles and rice dishes, all at under $11 each. The whole fried shrimp combine crunchy and meaty textures in a delightful way. The pickled papaya salad delivers a pleasing zing, and the mala chicken, they will warn you up front, contains a mouth-numbing spice. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of options for those who don’t embrace spicy food, and it’s also a great spot to take vegan friends.
Like Pig and Khao, Yunnan’s clientele of destination diners has been growing in recent months, Chou said, with patrons arriving from Westchester and outer boroughs.
It won’t be long before new restaurants are arriving as well.
Chou is excited about Calexico, a California-Mexican burrito and beer joint, moving into the former Bondi Road space around the corner at 153 Rivington St., as well as a new Japanese place, Sushi Ko, that’s planned at 91 Clinton St., just a few doors away from Yunnan.
“I’m really happy about that; I feel like they fit the neighborhood really well,” she said. “I’m glad to see a lot of restaurants moving in, especially restaurants rather than bars. Food is much more interesting than booze.”
The incoming restaurant generating the biggest buzz this winter is Ivan Ramen, a ramen noodle joint by American chef Ivan Orkin. Orkin, who draws descriptors like “ramen impresario” and “noodle guru” in the foodie press, runs two popular restaurants in Tokyo and plans to open his first U.S. restaurant at 25 Clinton St. this spring.
“Ivan Ramen on the LES is official!” he posted on Twitter Jan. 30. “Looking forward to new beginnings, new neighbors and new friendships.”