features Street Smarts: A Lesson in Survival from Asian Concept Restaurants
Street Smarts: A Lesson in Survival from Asian Concept Restaurants
December 2009

With restaurants like Num Pang and Xie Xie, Chefs Ratha Chau and 2009 Rising Star Chef Angelo Sosa have taken street foods and interpreted them for the decidedly higher production standard of the fast-casual New York restaurant scene. Both Xie Xie and Num Pang represent a comparatively up-market—and decidedly hip—incarnation of traditionally modest Asian street food.

The question is: how do you convince financial backers that your idea for a fast casual Asian spot will stand out in a sea of banh-mi-hocking competitors? And in an age when restaurants are bringing cheaper versions of their cuisine to street carts and food trucks, how do you do the opposite—bring what’s rightfully street food back indoors?

Chau and Sosa certainly aren’t the first—nor should we expect them to be the last—to bring traditional street food indoors. With restaurants like Chicago’s Wave with its weekly “Street Food” menu; Street, Susan Fenniger’s LA homage to street vendors; and the New York outpost of Vermilion, with an actual chaat (Indian “snacks”) cart on the first floor of the restaurant, so-called street food is no stranger to indoor treatment. (See our Bringing the Street Inside: Street Food in Restaurants feature.) But the recent and seemingly mass migration of street food indoors begs the question: in an age of tighter wallets and belts, can any, even slightly upscale version of typically dirt cheap street food expect to make serious money?

That all depends, chefs and owners are telling us. If you can keep your costs down without losing out on quality, diners will respond eagerly. As Chau, Sosa, and their ilk quickly discovered, while diners across the nation—and even New York diners, who prioritize dining out among expenses—are certainly spending less at restaurants, that doesn’t mean they want to abandon all pretense of dining out entirely.

Rather than waiting on a frozen street corner or checking Twitter updates for the latest guerilla food truck appearance, New Yorkers are spending their hard-earned dining dollars indoors on gourmet Asian sandwiches and other upscale cheap eats. Diners are proving they’ll trade fluff over flavor, so a restaurant that shirks formalities of service for bare wooden tables or even something as funky as Xie Xie, and instead invests its every last dollar in quality ingredients, will succeed in a way fine dining operations can’t. And this is the kind of marketing trend that investors can’t ignore.

At Xie Xie, Sosa uses lobster “from Nova Scotia, which is very expensive,” says Sosa, “but I want to be known for quality.” His food costs, which are about 25.6% when they could be between 15 and 18%, ensure that the legacy of Xie Xie will be the quality of the food and the distinct aesthetic of the restaurant. “We’re not about the sell,” explains Sosa, “but about the experience.” Sosa’s aesthetically futuristic Xie Xie sells a cutely tongue-in-cheek hyper-modernism along with its Chinese-inspired baguette sandwiches.

Num Pang, on the other hand, is more of a storefront selling Cambodian sandwiches than a restaurant, with minimal seating and punchy, simple décor. But like Xie Xie, Num Pang is about the quality of the food. “I think of flavor first before I go into food cost,” says Chau. “Our volume helps our food cost.” With the bigger volume of the fast-casual Num Pang, Chau can keep investing in high quality ingredients. “In this way I can be open,” he explained, serving high quality sandwiches at a relatively low price to hoardes of his Union Square regulars.

Chau introduced Num Pang following the stellar success of his first Cambodian culinary venture, Kampuchea. (Now with the development of the adjacent Norry, a gastropub crucible for New York-Cambodian cultural fusion, Chau has what promises to be a three-fold success in translating largely unfamiliar Cambodian fare for the American market.)

Despite their different culinary starting points and divergent restaurant concepts, the chefs agreed that any restaurant caught up in the tide of an emerging trend like Asian concept restaurants has to be aggressively idiosyncratic and conceptually unique. Num pang, the Cambodian sandwiches offered at the eponymous restaurant, and the Hong Kong-inspired fare of Xie Xie, both have the currency of exoticism, a currency which both chefs take very seriously. “I wanted to do classic Cambodian food, the way I eat it,” Chau explained at the ICC panel. Even in a dining era saturated with pickled carrots, pork belly, and pâtés of varying textural subtlety, the flavors of Asian-variety concept restaurants are still new enough to keep a broad cross-section of the dining public entranced. And as Chau and Sosa agreed, if the quality is there, the diners will follow.

Bringing street food indoors isn’t an elaborate hoodwink, a way to hike up prices for low-end casual grub. Chefs are putting a lot of thought, and years of tradition, into their street-food inspired restaurant concepts. And as long as diners don’t tire of the sweet-salty-spice-and-sour of this new wave of Asian ingredients, from Chinese fusion to straight up Cambodian, we can expect even more from Asian concept restaurants (and their reincarnated street foods) in the purse-pinching years to come.