Tucked away under the BQE, Kings County Imperial is one of those little restaurants that’s so good you almost want to keep it a secret so there won’t be a two hour wait the next time you go—because go once and you’ll be hooked. Dimly lit and with a design reminiscent of an opium den, the restaurant is equally good for a date or a dinner with friends, since dishes are served family style. Since last July, when Josh Grinker and Tracy Young opened this place—their pipe dream fifteen years in the making—they’ve gained a loyal following of locals and foodies who come for the flavorful dishes, fun tiki-inspired cocktails, and cozy atmosphere. “Dale Talde was in here the other day,” Grinker told me one sunny afternoon in February when I sat down to chat with him and Young over a pot of tea. “The word in the food community is out there. Any chef that’s interested in Asian food has been here,” Grinker said.
It’s not a stretch to say that Chinese cuisine has been undergoing a renaissance of late, with game-changing restaurants like Mission Chinese, Yunnan BBQ, and RedFarm reshaping consumers’ expectations of Chinese restaurants in America. The concept is simple—these places serve food made from fresh, high quality (often organic) ingredients prepared using proper techniques and presented in innovative ways. A meal may be more expensive than at a typical Chinatown spot, but the price is justified by the higher quality food and better overall experience. Though the trend has taken hold in Manhattan, there still aren’t many places in Brooklyn where you can get excellent Chinese food. Kings County Imperial fills that void.
They may not be Asian like most of the new wave of chefs making headlines, but Grinker and Young are devoted disciples of Chinese cuisine. After attending the New England Culinary Institute, they cooked in a renowned Chinese restaurant in Vermont and have traveled all over China cooking in inns, on trains, and in home kitchens from Hong Kong to Chengdu to Kashgar on the old silk road. For years they fantasized about opening a restaurant where they could use their knowledge of traditional Chinese cooking techniques and an artisanal ethos to create an experience on par with places serving American or European cuisine.
“We… get native Chinese people in here who are like, ‘man I haven’t had these flavors for forty years,
“I guess the term farm-to-table gets overused, but we really have bought into that concept” Young explained. “We try to buy local, if we can’t grow it at least to supplement, and everything is made from scratch.” Rather than use frozen dumplings, they make their own dough and have a dumpling maker who comes in every morning to roll, fill, and form those little pockets of deliciousness. Instead of buying sauces in bulk, they make them from scratch. They always use the best ingredients they can find—chickens from a poultry farmer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, heritage Berkshire pork, as much locally grown produce as possible, and in summer, herbs and edible flowers from their garden. It’s not always easy to find Asian vegetables at farmers markets, but they take advantage of Brooklyn’s own Chinatown in Sunset Park to get items like bok choy. “The Sichuan peppercorn has proven to be the greatest challenge because there’s a huge variation in the quality,” Young said. “You can grow it, but it’s not exactly the right climate.”
Despite the challenges of making farm-to-table Chinese food, Grinker and Young hold themselves to extremely high standards. When they realized they couldn’t make their own soy sauce because it’s such a lengthy process and you need a lot of land on which to do it, they found a family in the Pearl River Delta that still makes it from scratch using the traditional method—sun fermenting the soy in huge porcelain vats. They’ve been back several times to visit and develop a recipe free of preservatives with the goal of launching their own line of artisanal and authentic Chinese soy sauce for the home cook. For now the soy sauce is available on tap in the restaurant and is used in many of their dishes.
You can taste the difference—the soy sauce is salty and bright, the dumplings are pleasantly chewy, and the dishes are light, not greasy because everything is cooked in stock instead of oil. Asked if they get any flack for not being Chinese, Grinker responded, “Minor, but as much pushback as we get, we also get native Chinese people in here who are like, ‘man I haven’t had these flavors for forty years, thank you.’ And that’s the biggest testimony of all—that guy who’s in his fifties and grew up in China knows more than any critic and he knows more than me, so for him to be telling us that we’re resonating with him on a basic level, that comes from taking the ingredients and just preparing them in the same way that they’ve been done for hundreds if not thousands of years.” Grinker admits that perhaps because he’s not Chinese, he’s more insecure about being traditional. Unlike Danny Bowien, who serves kung pao pastrami at Mission Chinese, Grinker and Young avoid making fusion cuisine, unless you count serving Sichuan and Cantonese dishes side by side as fusion. That’s what sets them apart from these other restaurants.
“Chinese food used to be considered something that… you [eat] sitting in front of the TV because you’re starving or whatever and then you wouldn’t want to do it for another month—but this is the opposite”
“The biggest compliment I hear many times is ‘I haven’t stopped thinking about this since I was here…’” Young affirmed. “It’s almost like an addictive flavor profile.” Indeed, since my dinner there, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the mock eel, which they make with lightly breaded shiitake mushrooms cut into strands, soy sauce, and scallions. Grinker added, “That for us is the realization of the vision because Chinese food used to be considered something that was gross—you do it sitting in front of the TV because you’re starving or whatever and then you wouldn’t want to do it for another month—but this is the opposite. We wanted to create an experience where not only was it fresh and exciting and interesting to people, but they were like, yeah, I could do that a couple times a week for sure.” When they begin serving dim sum brunch this month, you could easily do just that.
Photos by Jane Bruce