Special Sauce: Jason Wang on Building a Xi’an Famous Foods Empire
In part two of my conversation with Xi’an Famous Foods cofounder Jason Wang, he and I talked mostly about the struggles and challenges involved in first getting the business off the ground, and then expanding.
The restaurant’s original location, in a subterranean food court in Flushing, Queens, had a napkin problem. Money there was so tight, Wang said, “We had to cut back on things…. Back in the days, I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t give out napkins. We didn’t have a napkin dispenser…. People were like,’Oh, you guys are so cheap, you don’t give napkins out.’ Fights started out because of napkins in Flushing.”
Wang knew it was important that both Chinese and non-Chinese customers enjoy the food. “It’s important for our food to continue to appeal to Chinese eaters that are in the US directly from China….They know what the food is supposed to taste like. If we have their, sort of, following, that speaks to the authenticity of the food. If we have other folks that are in New York City, we’re lucky to have a lot of guests who are more adventurous. They’re willing to try different things, try something new every night.”
The keys to the restaurant’s success? “Our food is very approachable. It’s very reasonably priced. People can try without feeling like it’s a big risk. It looks, smells good, people talk about it, so they’ll come. Now, when they do come, there’s a positive feedback effect that goes on. The Chinese people will see the American eaters, and the American users will see the Chinese people there. They’ll look at each other, and the Chinese people will be like, wow, Americans like this stuff? That must mean it’s high-quality, it’s well packaged, because that’s what the perception, the stereotype of Western products is…. Then the Americans will see the Chinese people, they’ll be like, there’s, like, a Chinese grandma that’s just sitting there eating. She doesn’t speak any English…. Yeah, it’s legit.”
As Jason and his dad, who cofounded Xi’an Famous Foods with him, began to expand the company—which now has 15 locations across New York City—they took seriously the challenge of preserving the qualities that had made it successful in the first place. “For our part, as we expanded—there’s always the whole stereotype of that C-word, ‘chain.’ When you become a chain, it becomes very washed down, you start losing the soul of the food. My day-to-day job is, these days, really is to maintain that soul…. It’s something I’m obsessed about. I think that’s what we do on our part. My father’s equally obsessive.”
But Wang isn’t all business, and he brings lots of smile-inducing surprises to this episode—including where he was headed to lunch when we finished talking, and which outspoken rapper/singer he wants at his last-supper table. You’ll learn all that and more when you tune in.
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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non food folks alike.
Jason Wang: We had to cut back on things, we have to cut back. Back in the days, I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t give out napkins. We didn’t have a napkin dispenser. We handed out napkins. People were like, “Oh, you guys so cheap you don’t give napkins out.” Fights start out because of napkins in Flushing.
EL: We are back with, and I’m going to mispronounce it again, Xi’an.
EL: Not Bad.
JW: Yeah, pretty good.
EL: Famous Foods co-founder Jason Wang. You’ve got plenty of non-Chinese people you thought would take to the food. Right? But how did you go about spreading the word, or did it just happen organically?
JW: Yeah. I mean, people ask me this question quite often actually. They think that, oh yeah, he got that social media stuff going on and people hear about the food there. I think at the end of the day… Right now, we have 15 locations in New York City. We have no marketing department, no one. The only marketing is me. I’m on social media, I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and I’m tweeting here and there. I’m taking a photo, some other folks sometimes take photos for me. That’s it. That’s the extent of our marketing. I think really at the end of the day it’s word of mouth, ever since the beginning days. How that works is this, I believe that it’s very important to appeal to everyone. What I mean by that is it’s important for our food to continue to appeal to Chinese eaters that are in the US directly from China. Whether they’re here for school or for work, or they’re like me that kind of grew up here or they’re born in the US, but they have family that are Chinese. All of those folks are really important because they have that connection to the culture. They know what the food is supposed to taste like. If we have their sort of following, that speaks to the authenticity of the food. If we have other folks that are in New York City, we’re lucky to have a lot of guests who are more adventurous. They’re willing to try different things, try something new every night. Our food is very approachable. It’s very reasonably priced. People can try without feeling like it’s a big risk. It looks, smells good, people talk about it, so they’ll come. Now, when they do come, there’s a positive feedback effect that goes on. The Chinese people will see the American eaters, and the American users will see the Chinese people there. They’ll look at each other, and the Chinese people will be like, wow, Americans like this stuff? That must mean it’s high quality, it’s well packaged, because that’s what the perception, the stereotype of western products are, western recognized products, I should say. Then, the Americans will see the Chinese people, they’ll be like, there’s like a Chinese grandma that’s just sitting there eating. She doesn’t speak any English.
EL: This must be legit.
JW: Yeah, it’s legit. Obviously, I’m stereotyping a lot here by grouping people. Obviously, people fall in different groups. Maybe you fall in both groups, but it’s important that it appeals to everyone, and that’s I think the success of our business. We’re still able to appeal to both sides of things. That’s kind of a story of my family, a story of myself as well. I came when I was eight. I still speak Chinese. I’m not as good in Chinese anymore as I was before. My English is better, but I still understand the culture. I understand what the nuance says are between the cultures. I understand the nuances of language and all that. It’s kind of like our store, our store is like that too. It’s like we have food that’s authentically Chinese, but we have very diverse workforce in our stores these days. It’s great.
EL: It’s totally fascinating. You’re absolutely right, and I was struck by it by my frequent visits to 102nd and Broadway. You had African Americans working there, Afro Caribbean people.
JW: Yes. By the way, that’s actually really cool because the Caribbean folks love oxtails and I have a lot of guests … It’s great. You see the culture sort of meshing, and it’s a really cool thing.
EL: It’s a totally fascinating thing to observe as an observer of the food culture. It really is. I don’t know if you set out to do that or you just discovered that it’s true about your food and then who it appeals to, but it’s absolutely true. I presume it’s also because when you guys first started, people started to crave authenticity and we’re willing to go out to Flushing, at least like Serious Eats in the old days and Chowhound, there was a lot of chatter about your food, so that must have helped. Then, what took it to the next level?
JW: Yeah, I mean taking it to the next level, I think a lot of it I have to give credit to that eaters themselves. It’s not really us. I mean for our part, as we expanded, there’s always the whole stereotype of that C-word, “chain.” When you become a chain, it becomes very washed down, you start losing the soul of the food. My day-to-day job is, these days really is to maintain that soul. Yesterday actually, I was at central kitchen, I stood in our vegetable prep department for the whole day. I just stood there with a clipboard, documenting everything people were doing, to make sure I understand the operations because I’m just that nitpicky about it. I’m going to do that for every department, I do that for our stores. It’s something I’m obsessed about. I think that’s what we do on our part. My father’s equally obsessive. He’ll blast out a message.
EL: Yeah. You’re your father’s son.
JW: I have to accept that. That’s what we do to kind of drive that word of mouth that goes on, making sure that we’re always maintaining quality. I give a lot of credit to the eaters themselves. It’s because they came out. When they saw that article maybe back in the days when the Beijing Olympics was happening. There was that one New York Times article that says, “Finding Beijing in Flushing,” or something or in New York. It featured our spot as one of the spots in Flushing to check out. It’s those folks who actually went all the way to Flushing to check on those and then to talk about the food afterwards. That really helped our growth. It’s the folks that come to our grand openings. They would line up just to take advantage of our promotion but also just to be happy about the fact that we’re opening somewhere close to them. I think it’s their openness to try new things that really helped us and the timing of everything, because nowadays more than decades ago, when people are not really knowledgeable of different cultures, in New York we have people of different cultures and then that kind of helped people break down barriers. Our timing really was-
EL: Kind of lucky.
EL: I say in my memoir about Serious Eats that you need some luck, some skill, and some talent, and some timing, and some fortuitous timing for any business to work.
EL: This would seem to be a perfect example of that. You couldn’t have foresaw that people were going to take your food and crave authenticity and accept the food, everything except the Lamb Face Salad. Let’s face it. Can I just say that now? I got bring it back to the Lamb Face Salad. It’s not on the menu. Don’t think I didn’t notice.
JW: I’ll just put this out there. The Lamb Face Salad is requested now and then by our die hard fan. This is what I tell them, we have a cookbook coming out next year that’ll feature it. That’s actually why I’m flying to Xi’an for and next week is to take some photos of the whole city. That’s definitely something to look forward to, and I look forward to making a comeback.
EL: Yeah. When you started opening up new locations, did you reach out to anyone for advice, and were you worried that the restaurant would lose its soul?
JW: I think expansion in the beginning was very conservative, in a sense that our first couple of new expansions, were really just within Chinatown. A funny story, I came back to New York and right away my father had already signed two new locations, anticipating I’d be back. I kind of had just had to roll with it. Our first location I actually picked was our east village St. Marks Place location. That one is kind of built off the confidence I already gained from opening up the tiny east Broadway Chinatown location that’s not there anymore, as well as the second Flushing location that’s not there anymore because the whole buildings torn down. From those, you build confidence on how to deal with building a restaurant, the logistics of construction as well as the paperwork, dealing with city agencies, all of that stuff you never really learn about in school, you never touched on. Then, going from that to okay, well, maybe let’s step out of Chinatown. Let’s go to east village, let’s see how that goes. Then, from that it’s like, okay, well that worked out well let’s open up something bigger. Let’s open up somewhere in new neighborhood. Every store, every project that we take on, I learned something from it. For example, we just our Long Island City location, and it was something that was not real. We’ve been focusing so much on Manhattan, Long Island City was like, oh okay, well there’s a lot of folks that are here, too. Maybe we should think about opening regionally. Every step, basically, we build confidence on expansion.
EL: Yeah. Did you just accept the fact that you are going to make mistakes or did each mistake really hurt?
JW: Mistakes do hurt, not going to lie. They hurt financially and they hurt your ego a little bit as well, but you learn from them. Sometimes it’s just inevitable in this business. I always tell folks when they’re interviewing for a position with the company is, how do you take it when things go wrong all the time? Does that really stress you out? I mean, I don’t ask it like that. I try to frame some other way of asking it to get that information, but if you’re the type type of person that’s going to be really stressed out because you can’t follow the task list that you made for yourself for the week, things always come up, then you’re going to get stressed out working in this industry.
EL: Yeah. You just have to acknowledge you’re going to make mistakes when you start a business. You have to hope that not one of them is fatal.
JW: Yes. That’s a great way to say it.
EL: How did you find the capital to expand?
JW: Well, the capital to expand for us, we don’t have any investors. Not that people don’t want to invest in us, but we’ve always said no, respectfully, and we always dug into our own pockets for expansion.
EL: That’s a little terrifying.
JW: It is very terrifying because it’s very risky. Even our CPA, my newest CPA, very professional guy, he says, “Why are you doing this by yourself? You have no money and everything is in your business.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s why I have no money. I wanted to ask you where my money is.” I guess that makes sense. It’s in the store. He was like, “Usually, we’ll leverage banks and other folks to help you do it. You don’t have to pay for everything on your own.” In the past, we’re a tiny stall in Flushing. No one’s going to lend us money at that point. We were so small and we don’t really have that much to show for it at that point. It’s really just keeping things very cost effective, at the same time, offer good quality an offer value. We had to cut back on things, we have to cut back. Back in the days, I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t give out napkins. We didn’t have a napkin dispenser. We handed out napkins.
EL: Because you couldn’t afford the extra napkins.
JW: Yeah. I mean, people were like, “Oh, you guys so cheap, you don’t give napkins out.” Yeah, we probably were, but we had to in order to … Yeah. Anyways, fights start out because of napkins in Flushing. That was a different time, it was a different era, but every time we open up more locations and thankfully they’ve been successful, we always gain enough from sales to sort of reach our break even to make more money from it. Then, we think about, all right, are we ready for the next one? Because people really want us in blank, blank, blank neighborhoods.
EL: Yeah. I’ve always been interested, because our offices were in Chinatown for a long time, there on Grant street, that the Chinatown food economy seemed totally divorced from the rest of the food economy in New York City. I could never figure out why Chinatown fish markets could afford to sell seemingly the same salmon for 40% less. Can you shed any light on that?
JW: I don’t want to really focus on the stereotypes, but some stereotypes are true. When you have a lot of places that are charging very low prices for things, but they are cash only, there’s a question mark you have to think about. You also have to think about, in terms of staffing, what are people being paid? How are they being paid? Are they being paid the same way, let’s say, as the rest of the folks in the city, the minimum wage? Et cetera, et cetera.
EL: Right. Probably not.
JW: Again, I don’t want to make assumptions.
EL: You don’t want to…
JW: I want to throw those questions out there. Yes. It is something that’s concerning because obviously, people go to Chinatown for the bargains, really. I think a lot of consumers don’t really care that much about these things. When you think about it though, there are people that are paying for these type of…
EL: Yeah. It’s a zero sum game, is what you’re saying.
JW: Exactly. It’s concerning, but I mean, hey, at the end of the day, I do have to give respect to the folks. It’s not like people that are operating business in Chinatown have it easy, they also have their hardships as well. It’s challenging, even when they’re playing with their own rules. Hey, I still go to places that serve a nice Shanghai steam buns here and there, and I don’t complain about the cash only because it’s kind of necessary. It’s a culture thing already for New York.
EL: Yeah. Interesting. An academic wrote a book about the Chinatown food culture. There are actually farms that cater exclusively to Chinese merchants, which I didn’t really know about until I read this book.
EL: Do you source your food from a combination of Chinese sources and an American sources? How do you go about doing it?
JW: Yeah, I know there are a lot of Chinese American farmers in states like Jersey, Pennsylvania. There are farms down there that grow vegetables that … Some vegetables are very common, other vegetables are very specialized.
JW: Yesterday, as I mention, I was in the vegetable prep preparation department of our central kitchen. I saw some boxes that are labeled “Long Life inc.” or something. I was like, yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s a Chinese farm right there. Long Life sounds too Chinese to not be Chinese.
EL: It’s not a coincidence.
JW: Yeah, it’s not coincidence. I think we source some directly from them. Some are through sort of the middle distributors that are also Chinese businesses that would gather these and sell to places like us. We definitely do work with those vendors a lot, very often. Especially, for things that we can’t really get in a place like Cisco or something. They don’t carry those products, so we kind of have to work with…
EL: Do you worry about, when it comes to meat, is it sustainably raised? Or is that, at your price point, can you not afford to worry about that?
JW: For us, yes, on a fiscal sense, it is difficult to achieve sustainability, and organic, and things like those that are for our type of food. At the same time, I would also argue it’s cultural. For me, it’s more about does it … I don’t even know if I should say this, but it’s more about if it tastes good, because in China, we never had the luxury of thinking about those things. Not to say they’re not important at all, but just growing up, it’s not something that would be priority. It’s more about is your meat fresh? Is your vegetable fresh? Does the food taste good? I think we were sort of blessed with the fact that a lot of the food in China were from the local areas, they weren’t shipped that far. I mean, we still have open markets that we could buy vegetables and meats from. Of course, meat you have to watch out for in China, but it’s just never been kind of … They don’t have big conglomerates making all the food that we eat as we do in the US. I guess it’s kind of a cultural thing. I wouldn’t rule it out. I wouldn’t rule out saying we won’t move on those initiatives.
EL: Sure. It’s hard when you’re charging $10.00 for a meal.
JW: Yeah. I definitely understand the necessity of it at times.
EL: How have the restaurant changed as you’ve grown? What have you learned?
JW: Right. Well, as the restaurants grow in numbers, I can’t be in all the stores anymore, and my father can’t be in all stores anymore. We really had to learn how to manage the business instead of cooking everything every day ourselves. Not to say, the Chili oil he still makes, and I still check out the operations of the stores all the time, but we learn how to delegate. We learned to trust people, we learned to grow a family of team members for our business so that it can continue to grow. That’s something that I think is really important.
JW: Other than that, in terms of restaurants themselves, we’ve focused more on than just the food. The food is important but it’s also about the whole experience. Like you were speaking with Danny Meyer, I look to this work a lot. I look to a lot of other great folks in the industry as guidance, sort of role models for their take on hospitality. I just think that if we were to combine hospitality with a great food at a great price point, I know it sounds like a lot to wish for, but if we could achieve all those things, then we’d be invincible. what can really stop us?
EL: Interesting that you say that, because I felt that actually in the last couple of days going up to [crosstalk 00:17:37] Broadway.
JW: That’s good to hear.
EL: There was a good feeling. There was definitely a good vibe in the store, which is not always possible, or it doesn’t always happen in restaurants at that price point. I don’t feel that way about other fast casual chains.
JW: It’s unfortunate. Yeah. I mean, it’s as simple as just saying “hi” and “please” and “Thank yous” here and there. I think that over the years, we really focus on that. I’m not the nicest person. My father is not. He’s nice, but he also has a short temper. It’s something that we had to kind of work with ourselves to grow that culture because in the past, it’s just about, hey, we just want to focus on the food. More and more I realize how important it is from my own experience as a consumer, to have good food and good service. Well, I don’t like to say service, I like to say hospitality and all that in our stores. That’s definitely something has changed.
JW: We’ve also changed the way that our stores really look. I mean, they still have these quirky signs that you see in the store saying, “Hey, please order first and then sit.” Some folks are like, “Oh, that’s very a matter of fact of signs that you have up there.” We still keep that as our culture, but in terms of the look and feel of the stores, we try to improve.
JW: Again, we’re not using big design firms to make these stores. Everything, I designed myself. All the stores, I designed, and I work closely with the contractors to get everything done. We tweak things just to make it feel like it has more of identity for our stores, not just bare bones as much as possible. There’s just some things I’ve changed.
EL: Yeah. I did notice the sign about, “Don’t be afraid of Chili oil.”
JW: Yes. Don’t be afraid. It’s fragrantly spicy.
EL: Fragrantly spicy, man. That is one of the greatest, it’s not even a euphemism. It’s actually true.
JW: I would love to have you sometimes come down to our central kitchen. When my father is making the Chili oil by the big cauldrons, big kettles of it. You’re going to need a mask because you’re going to choke a little bit, but the smells that do come in, the fragrance that do come in, just…
EL: All right. We’re going to send a team from Serious Eats down there. You just mentioned the central kitchen. What else is made there? Is noodle still made by hand?
JW: Well yes, absolutely. We make a lot of things in our central kitchen. We prep meat, vegetables for our stores. We cook the meats, various meats, beef, pork, lamb. We slice and cook that down in the stores because they kind of have to cook that right away. Noodles, we make into the pieces from just flour and dough and ship to our stores daily. Liangpi, the cold skin noodles, we make there. The buns for our burgers. You can’t just buy like Sriracha sauce off the shelf and just put on your noodles. All of our sauces are made there for the noodles, for the dumplings. Dumplings are made there. Lamb Face used to be made there. A lot of different things. It’s a very important hub for support of all of our stores. It’s in queens and it’s something that’s actually really critical for our expansion.
EL: We’re going to go, and you’re going to show how to make the noodles?
JW: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
EL: Very important.
JW: Yeah, sure.
EL: Very important. How are you in your dad getting along? Now, you’ve been in this business with him for what, over 10 years now?
JW: Yeah. I mean, if you want to count the years when he was by himself, I was kind of working with him from far away, it’s been a while, 10 to 14 years now. We definitely understand each other a little bit better, but that doesn’t really help us from arguing sometimes.
EL: That’s the way I feel about my wife, too.
JW: You understand what the pressure points are.
EL: I love her dearly, but we still fight.
JW: Yes. It’s okay. I think it’s important that when it comes to family, you can always fight and you could make up. That’s an asset, I think for our business we don’t just start having arguments where we have to go suing each other or anything like that. Blood’s thicker than water, we’re still okay. Of course, I try to learn different ways to work with folks. Sometimes, I still talk to my friends about dealing with parents and those type of family relationships. I feel like sometimes I’m able to give advice. I’m like, Hey, if your parents aren’t really buying into something, just go with them for a little bit, kind of work with them and then slowly work the idea or just hear them out. Different ways of communication will help you get the end results. I say that, but I don’t do that 100% of the time. It is stuff that I-
EL: I was going to say, this sounds vaguely hypocritical. I don’t know.
JW: Well, when you’re talking about investor relations and talking to the board, I have no board. I just have one person I have to talk to. Every time we make any sweeping decisions that’ll affect the business, it’s just us two in the living room at his place, and we’d just talk and then whether we will agree and then just implement something right away, or I might just argue with him and storm out of the house. Those are the two things that could happen. It happens a lot, but we always get stuff done.
EL: How big do you want to get? I’ve had fantasies about… Xi’an?.
JW: Xi’an. Getting closer.
EL: I’m getting closer. If we talk for two more hours, I’m going to get it.
JW: Yeah. You’re there. Yeah.
EL: I’ve fantasized about them being in highway rest stops instead of McDonald’s.
JW: That’s interesting. I don’t know how I feel about that. I mean, I would love the convenience of it and I would love obviously, the expansion. That would mean we expanded like crazy. Right? I think that we’re definitely going to expand. I would like to take the cuisine to a different places, but for it to become that accessible, I think we are going to definitely lose some of our soul, unfortunately.
JW: Yeah. Because our food is innately different from burgers and fries. Not to say those don’t take preparation, but it’s a different level of preparation that needs to be cooked, needs to be done as far as the food goes.
EL: Now, it’s time for the all you can answer Special Sauce buffet. It’s not a buffet in the traditional sense of the word.
JW: Okay. No food involved?
EL: Who’s at your last supper? No family allowed. It can be anybody you want.
JW: It’s difficult to pin someone down. I personally don’t have many role models, but I would say, just off the top of my head, I have a picture of him on my fridge, Bruce Lee.
JW: I’d be very interested to talk to him. My impression of him is he was not much of a talker, but he’s still icon in the sense that he came from the East to the West, was able to become one of the first people to be accepted in American culture as an icon and still is an icon these days. I’d just like to ask him about his experiences.
EL: That’s great. I like that. I need two more, at least two more people at the table.
JW: Oh man. I might get executed by this person if I invited him, but the first emperor of China, I’d be interested because he is from Xi’an thousands of years ago. I’m just really curious as to how the culture was back then. It must be very different. I think the language was, I probably can’t even understand him back then.
EL: I like this cross generational thing. You got the first emperor of China, you have Bruce Lee and now I need one more person. A woman would be great.
JW: Yeah. I mean, gosh.
EL: Yeah. If whoever needed protection from Bruce, the emperor could take care of that.
JW: Yes. Yes. That would be an ultimate battle. That’s like a remake of heroes or something. Would it be too much to just stick … Should I be more diverse? I feel like I’m just-
EL: I think you need diversity, otherwise, we’re going to get a lot of shit.
JW: Yeah, no, I understand. I’d be very interested to sit down with Cardi B though. These days, I’m just really interested to hear her perspectives when she’s not posting it. I just want to hear, she’s very interesting person and I think that she has come a long way in her career.
EL: I love this. What are the table. Cardi B, Bruce Lee and the first emperor of China.
JW: Yeah. I mean, she’s just very bold with her statements. You know what? It says a lot about her character to be able to be that bold. I’d just really like to meet her and just to hear what she has to say in person. It’d be great.
EL: Perfect. What are you eating?
JW: What am I eating? Oh man. Last meal?
JW: Oh, there has to be everything that I enjoy. There’s going to be a big table, right?
EL: Right. Yeah.
JW: We’re gonna have obviously food from my hometown, all the things from simple foods like skewers, barbecue skewers with lamb and cumin to the steam buns, the juicy steam bumps from Shiyan that’s lamb filled to our noodles of course, just classic hot-oil seared noodles noodles. Nothing fancy. No meats, just that. Then, we’re going to have one of my other favorite cuisines, I like Japanese food. I will love good selection of fresh fish, just Sushi and some sashimi. A lot of toro.
EL: I like this. A lot of toro.
JW: A lot of toro rolls. Then, we’re gonna come to the west side of things and western cuisine, in terms of Italian food. Okay. When I say Italian food, I know when it comes to real Italian food, there’s a lot of diversity there as well. Besides just that, I would also enjoy a lot of Italian American food. There’s a distinction there. It’s comfortable for me, because whether it’s pizza or some pasta, just something as simple as something family style, something huge. I would just love those. Those are my three favorite cuisines.
EL: All right. Give me the three Italian American dishes that you’d like at the table.
JW: Oh gosh. People are going to give me crap for this, but I like things simple. I’m a very simple guy. I like spaghetti and meatballs. I’ll take some seafood linguini, and I’ll take some pizza. Just give me a deep dish of grandma’s slice or something like that. Nothing fancy, something with tomato sauce.
EL: What do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat?
JW: Well, then we’ve got to have something, some places, right?
JW: Very survival mode type of thing.
JW: I find myself in that situation very often. Late night, everything’s closed in Long Island city where I live, nothing to eat there except Xi’an Famous Foods these days. Sorry, there are selections. I’m just joking. As a resident I’m mad about that. I would have hot pot and night. They’re very easy to keep because you could just freeze some meats and some fish balls and stuff in your freezer. You could have the hotpot, the soup base, which is just a big block of oil. You could keep that in your fridge for awhile and it’s very easy prep. If you have a few vegetables, if not, maybe just some noodles maybe some mushrooms would work, dried mushrooms work as well, and just throw it in and just have a spicy hot pot, have some sauces. I always have those in my fridge, so that’s definitely saved me many times on those hungry cold nights.
EL: I like that. Do you have a guilty pleasure or two?
JW: Oh man, guilty pleasure. Let’s just go with one. Again, I’m very simple guy. I like to be alone at times and just have some wine or whiskey at my desk and just play video games. I like playing Overwatch with my friends. It’s this a multiplayer online game. It’s such a waste of time.
EL: You’re having whiskey and you’re not even eating anything?
JW: No, eating has become synonymous with having to go out these days because I honestly don’t have much time to cook.
EL: Yeah.You can have a snickers or potato chips.
JW: I don’t snack much.
EL: You don’t snack much?
JW: I don’t snack. Yeah. It has to be real food or no food at all.
EL: Got It.
EL: All right. That’s fair. Who’s had the greatest influence on you in your career?
JW: Oh, this is also difficult. I know people say that it’s also difficult a lot, but I think this question is especially for me, because I draw inspiration from a lot of folks in industry. I think I draw from Ray Kroc from McDonald’s in the early days. I read the Golden Arches book.
EL: Did you watch the movie, The Founder?
JW: I watched the movie. It was also very interesting as well.
EL: It’s a great movie.
JW: It is very entertaining as well and very true to what I read on the book as well. I think I just admired his culture of being the founder, being someone who really cares about the business, walk into the lot of the business picking up trash. That’s what I admire. I also admire Danny Meyer who was on his show and he’s someone who’s definitely someone to look to in terms of the whole word “hospitality.” He wrote the book on literally Setting the Table. Also a book that I read. I look to a Howard Schultz as well. I look to him in terms of their expansion, what he envisioned for Starbucks in the beginning and how he took it to the next level with the hub and spoke system of his roasting plants enough in the early days. That’s something that emulate as well.
JW: Yeah. A lot of different inspirations. Just a couple more like In-N-Out, I look at for their whole, the family business. I also look at Panda Express, I admire—they’re a family business, the wife and husband team, the billing system.
EL: My son is the one who’s like, “Dad, you got to get off your high horse. Panda Express is pretty damn good.”
JW: Hey, they’re good at what they’re doing, and they’re a respectful business in the sense that it’s private and has expanded to so many locations.
EL: There’s one right across the street from where we’re recording.
JW: Yeah. I might go grab a bite there later. Don’t judge me.
EL: It’s just been declared Jason Wang Day all over the world. What’s happening on that day?
JW: Oh Man. What has happened on Jason Wang’s Day? I think everyone should go and eat something that they haven’t tried before, that’s super casual. I think on this day it’s just about recognizing… For me, in New York City, honestly I’m kind of scared to go out sometimes because I’m worried about the wait times I have to face in the restaurants. Whenever I’m traveling, the first priority, obviously, for a lot of people I think, too, is just to try out the local foods and try out something simple. I don’t care about the tourist traps or the fancy places unless it’s somewhere where there’s a very talented chef making some mission level food. Of course, that’s respectful, but I just want to eat what the locals eat. I think that that’s something, since I work in the food business, since I am sort of, I represent ethnicity in the US, I think that’s really important for me to have folks just go out and try something new. Learn something new.
EL: Real carefully crafted and casual food.
JW: Exactly, exactly. Casual. When I went to Saint Louis, there’s a diner there that serves Korean food. I’ve been there since I was in college. I went back again. I’m good friends with the guy there.
EL: Where is this?
JW: It’s on the loop in Saint Louis. It’s called U-City Grill. I’ve got to give a shout out to U-City grill, feeding all the hungry college students. A lot of respect to them because it’s so casual. It’s like American style diner from the ’50s serving Korean food. Never renovated, just delicious. That’s the type of spirit I would like everyone to take on my day. Just go eat something.
EL: Yeah, I love it. I love it, man. Listen, Jason Wang, thank you so much for sharing your special sauce.
JW: Great to speak with you.
EL: It’s awesome. If you find yourself in New York City, check out Xi’an.
EL: Xi’an. Getting closer.
JW: I’m trying to get there. Sorry. The progression of the sounds closer and closer.
EL: Yeah. Famous Foods in any one of its now fourteen locations.
JW: Well, technically fifteen now.
EL: Fifteen, yeah. Anyway, it just might be the next big thing. So long, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time. Thank you so much.
JW: Thank you for listening. Thank you very much.
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