the grub street diet

Creative Director Phillip Wong Likes to Get Lost in Japanese Markets

“There are so many micro-universes in them.”

Phil Wong at Lalito.
Phil Wong at Lalito.

Growing up on the Upper West Side with a Haitian mother and a Cantonese father helped shape the designer Phillip Wong into something of a professional polyglot. Along with designing for the streetwear brand Hood By Air and making merch for musicians like Blood Orange and Porches, he co-founded the cologne company Hawthorne with his childhood friend Brian Jeong. Wong’s knack for knowing what he wants, when he wants it, also informs the way he eats: “It’s just kind of like, ‘It’s time for this,’ and nothing else exists,” he says. This week he was going through an egg phase, which he satisfied at Waverly Restaurant. He also made soba and went out for bialys, and tried to find Salt Bae at his New York restaurant — only to find out the living meme was out of town. Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Friday, March 29
I had a meeting in the morning and I always get super hungry in conference rooms. There’s something about them that reminds me of sitting in first-period class in high school and always thinking about lunch, so I had to make sure I ate breakfast. Before getting out of bed I ordered an egg and avocado sandwich on a toasted English muffin (with an extra egg and bacon) from Waverly Restaurant, which is just a no-nonsense neighborhood spot. I go in and out of heavy egg phases — it’s either every morning or no mornings at all.

The meeting was only a short walk away, on Lafayette, right above Supreme, except that location was undergoing renovations, so the usual throng of crazed non-skater customers was absent, which was amazing.

On my walk down to my office, I stopped by my usual lunchtime emporium, Canal Street Market. There are just enough options for you to feel like you’ll try something new each time you walk in, but also only enough options that you usually go back to what feels right.

What felt right — and always feels right — was my favorite spot Izakaya/ Samurice. Quick Japanese comfort food that’s always pretty on-point. I like their selection of meal add-ons as well (like ikura, a.k.a. salmon roe, uni, and natto). I got the salmon bento box topped with ikura, which is what I usually get. It came with brown rice, seaweed, pickled pink ginger strips, cabbage with that “secret” sesame dressing, broccoli, and spicy greens. It’s super filling and the owner is a cool guy. I also got the miso soup (with a bonito drip and scallions) because the meal never feels complete unless there are multiple steps to it.

I’m definitely attracted to strong flavors. I think it’s kind of just growing up where I did, and also my parents being immigrants — infusing their cuisines into the Upper West Side mix. We’d have bagels and lox; my mom’s Haitian family had their amazing red rice and beans that I always craved; and my dad — he’s from Hong Kong — would always make these awesome Cantonese dishes. I kind of just grew accustomed to craving all these ridiculous flavors and wanting them all together at once.

Anyway, before I left Canal Street Market I stopped at Boba Guys to get a very non-boba drink: an iced matcha latte with Oatly oat milk, no toppings, and no sweetness. Since I got coffee out of my life (La Colombe, I miss you) about a year ago (I was up to four to five cold brews a day, and NOT sleeping, ever), I’ve tried a bunch of alternatives and landed on matcha. It doesn’t fulfill the energy needs, but it serves the same ritual function. And good matcha is really good.

A busy day at the office carried into the evening, and I was not going to have time to eat if I wanted to make the evening celebrations. It was my friend Sal’s pop-up party at the ongoing On Canal installation series, and after that, my friend Jenny’s birthday at the Soho Grand. On my way home I picked up some sake at the spot Soho Wines & Spirits on West Broadway. They’re kind of the perfect neighborhood store, a good range of options with affordable prices, although I wish they’d have some more obscure offerings. (Susucaru! Orange wine!!) I got some dry sake to bring to Sal’s pop-up and headed home to scrape together something to eat.

I only really had supplies for some soba, so I went with it. I changed and then cooked soba noodles, set them under some cold water, and then fried some ginger with sesame seeds to toast, added extra-firm tofu, and then some dashi and soy sauce after the tofu was extra crispy. I put it all together with the soba, then topped it off with some shiso, sliced scallions, oshinko, and wasabi. This dinner was a mix of leftover stuff I had gotten earlier in the week from two Japanese markets I usually go to, Dainobu and Sunrise Mart. Japanese markets are one of the great pleasures of the world, my all-time favorite being the Mitsuwa in Jersey. I think what draws me to the markets is that there are so many micro-universes in them. There’s a bunch of storytelling, in a way. Japanese markets give you this insane universe of little gems.

Anyway, this only took about 15 minutes, and then I was out the door. I made it to Canal Street with my sake in time to see Sal DJ and dance a bit before heading to Jenny’s birthday. The event ended at 10 p.m. sharp, so my friends and I walked over to neighborhood-favorite bar Toad Hall. We had a couple more drinks while some splintered off. Then a handful of us headed to the birthday at Soho Grand to have a fun night.

Saturday, March 30
After sleeping in a little, I had a workout and then picked up breakfast from Tacombi on Bleecker Street. It was really that I was craving rice and beans and hot sauce, and Tacombi was the first thing I thought of. Plus, I hadn’t eaten from there in a while, so it was nice to switch things up. I ordered two breakfast tacos, which were filled with eggs and carnitas and really more like mini burritos, and a side of rice and beans.

After breakfast I had a bunch of errands to catch up on, but I needed my afternoon matcha, so I stopped by Cha Cha Matcha on Lafayette. I wanted the usual iced matcha latte, but Cha Cha had been out of oat milk for weeks (OATLY, what’s good!) so I went with macadamia milk, which was also refreshing but slightly too sweet.

A few hours later my girlfriend Violet came over so we could head to Perry St for a date. Her friend Hunter is also the new GM there and she hadn’t visited him yet. We got there a little early, so Hunter started us with some Champagne before we sat at the bar to wait for our reservation. At the bar, I ordered a Cara cara julep (partly trying to manifest some spring weather) and it wasn’t long before we were seated. The menu all sounded really delicious and Hunter was keen on sending dishes out as well, but I really couldn’t stop myself. I ordered the crispy snapper sashimi, calamari with yuzu foam, soft-shell crab, scallops, and sturgeon caviar. Hunter additionally sent out some sweet pea soup, white asparagus with lemon fondue, and a very chill dessert spread to finish. This included some amaro (I love Fernet, and so do all my friends, so this was perfect), and chocolate pudding with candied violets. These are my new favorite thing — this dinner could’ve used little side dishes of capers, caviar, and candied violets.

The dinner was so rich and loving that I don’t remember much from after paying the bill. But I wanted more. We passed out the second we got back home.

Sunday, March 31
I had another big dinner coming up, so I wanted to keep breakfast light. After laundry, I ordered from this spot Village Natural, which I order from most weekends. I think it’s part routine, part not wanting to stress about anything on the weekend. It’s always on time, the delivery guy is always super funny when he pops in. It’s always a good experience, and good energy. So why fight that? Also, it’s super clean food and they break down most breakfast things into “sides,” so you don’t really have to stress if you have a specific craving for one thing that’s not included in a specific plate. I got four eggs, soy bacon, and a roasted veggie cutlet.

Violet’s cousin was in town from the U.K. with her boyfriend, and he really wanted to go to Nusr-Et, a.k.a. the Salt Bae restaurant in midtown. It’s definitely not something I ever thought I’d do, but I was really excited to see the empire that this meme had birthed.

As soon as we walked in, we were assaulted with merchandise, clouds of dry ice, whirling napkins, and a restaurant-wide song-and-dance that I’m pretty sure never stopped. We were then taken to our table in the back room. On the way back, we passed this never-ending glass display case housing piles of mustard rubbed T-bone steaks, gold leaf–encased tomahawks, and an entire hall of lamb racks. It was quite far from where I started the day.

We sat down in the much quieter back room and ordered our guests’ recommendations. We got the meat sushi (which was just avocado cream wrapped in steak), the steak tartare (mostly because it had capers — my favorite), sizzling steak in butter, the lamb rack, and fries. The food was actually not bad, but I was disappointed Salt Bae wasn’t actually there — he wasn’t even in the country, actually. We looked up his whereabouts on Instagram and it looked like he was going to be in Turkey for a while. That hit really hard. You would assume at least the rest of the staff would be Salt Bae-ing your food! But no.

Monday, April 1
I worked from home for a minute before heading in to the office. It’s sometimes hard to settle your energy when you compete with the Monday-morning rush. On my way in, I stopped by Smile to Go. Their lunch plates are always really filling and a little more nuanced than what you would get at a Dig Inn. I got a plate with mustard vinaigrette salad with marinated potatoes, plum, and kale, green beans, quinoa with peas and mint, a side of grilled chicken, and their sweet pea soup. I always get a side of some sort, wherever I go. Here it’s usually the banana buckwheat bread, but it was unnecessarily windy outside, so I felt like a soup. It was dairy-free, too. I needed to get away from that after the weekend.

Afterward, I stopped by Boba Guys for my matcha.

I stayed in the office pretty late and then went home to keep working, so I ordered from one of my weeknight usuals, Som Bo. It’s one of many places I’ve only Seamlessed from and I can’t say for sure that it’s even a physical establishment. Another one is this spot Trattoria Pesce Pasta that my friend Hudson and I would separately order from every Sunday. We became tight with the delivery guy, who would always show up in all white. Pants, shoes, cloth du-rag, apron, and T-shirt — everything. Simple red-sauce place, but always satisfying. Anyway, Som Bo offers up a really easygoing menu, so I didn’t browse for 20 minutes indecisively. I ordered the steak plate with charred broccoli, sweet potatoes, and grilled tofu. Yes, I was really hungry. I sometimes order two dinners simultaneously.

Tuesday, April 2
After a morning meeting in Brooklyn, I had to stop by my friend Nate’s new spot Gertie. I had gone for their soft launch but hadn’t been back yet. It’s really good, especially when you’re in an egg phase. Also if you aren’t. This place is a must.

I ordered the egg on bialy with peppers, bacon, and mushrooms. I never ate bialys growing up. There wasn’t a standout spot near me, and Absolute was just the place. Every weekend my dad would leave the house, maybe at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m., and wait in line at Absolute with the rest of the neighborhood people. I don’t eat bagels on a regular basis anymore, though, and Gertie’s turned me back on to bialys. They almost taste like an artisanal bread as opposed to this carb cloud.

Another busy day at the studio made me crave something spicy. I ordered from Spicy Moon, a fun Sichuan-style vegan spot. I ordered the mapo tofu and the boiled watercress with soy-ginger sauce. The sauce is reminiscent of eating a whole steamed fish at a Cantonese-style restaurant. Very comforting and flavorful.

Growing up, I wouldn’t just crave food, I would crave the repetition of a meal. Whether it was eating an everything bagel from Absolute every weekend morning (heavily toasted, like a seven out of ten on the crisp scale, with some kind of fish spread and capers), my mom’s family’s Haitian rice, my dad’s Cantonese-style steamed ginger beef, La Rosita’s breakfast with rice and beans, eggs, ham, and Cuban toast, or a slice of Sal & Carmine’s after school. That’s how I became something of a creature of habit — keep it simple and go with your cravings.

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