In our cooking series Quickies, we invite chefs, bartenders, and other personalities in the world of food and drink who are serious hustlers to share their tips and tricks for preparing quick, creative after-work meals. Every dish featured in Quickies takes under 30 minutes to make, but without sacrificing any deliciousness—these are tried-and-tested recipes for the super-busy who also happen to have impeccable taste.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn is not exactly a destination for Chinese food. So when Kings County Imperial opened there in the summer of 2015, diners gamely polished their chopsticks and lined up in droves.
And imagine their surprise when they found out that not only was the food good, but that the founders weren't even Chinese.
"People just love Chinese food but they don't always have access to it," says Josh Grinker, the chef and co-owner of King's County Imperial, when asked about the decision to open in Williamsburg. "You can get amazing Chinese food in New York City, but usually you gotta go to Chinatown."
After all, in a city where nearly everything is available on-demand, traveling for dinner to a different neighborhood—let alone another borough—can be an enormous ask.
RECIPE: Kung Pao Chicken
So Grinker and his partner Tracy Young, who simultaneously became enamored with Chinese food while working together at A Single Pebble in Vermont, decided to open a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn's trendiest district, where, with few exceptions, there's little in the way of regional Chinese cuisine beyond the standard Americanized fare of grease-slicked lo mein and egg foo young.
"We do everything by the book," Grinker says of the restaurant's offerings. "When I say that, I mean we're not reinventing the wheel."
But Kings County Imperial isn't hewing terribly close to the cuisine of a given geographic region. Instead, its menu is something of a greatest hits from disparate provinces of mainland China, as well as American inventions.
"We just borrow from everywhere, and that's what gives our Chinese food that American Chinese or Brooklyn Chinese tagline," says Grinker. "We just cook what we like, whether it's shrimp toast, which is kind of an American hybrid, or ma po doufu, which is a very central China dish."
Straddling the line between those two is Kings County Imperial's kung po chicken. Often transliterated as kung pao on American Chinese menus, it's a staple in the States that has roots in Sichuan, where it's electrified with numbing Sichuan peppercorns and a punch of red chilies. The American iteration is invariably sweeter and duller, but Grinker's version is closer to the Chinese original.
It's the sauce—a combination of soy sauces, ginger, garlic, vinegar, and sesame oil—that holds it all together. Grinker allows Kings County's to mellow for a month before it's used. But after that, the dish comes together in minutes.
The other key is the chicken marinade—a spiced slurry of cornstarch, white pepper, and egg—which keeps the meat tender as it fries to crisp perfection in the wok.
With the chicken cooked and sauce at the ready, Grinker quickly stir-fries fistfuls of snow peas, chopped onion, peanuts, and sliced garlic, with dried chilies, chili paste, Sichuan peppercorns, and chili flakes, adding stock and the kung po sauce as necessary. At the last second, the chicken returns to the party, incorporated with a few tosses of the wok.
It's a dish that seems to speak to the pan-Chinese ethos at King's County: delicious yet simple, ubiquitous yet finessed.
"If we like it, and it's Chinese, and we can employ our traditional Chinese techniques, we'll put it on our menu without any hesitation," says Grinker. "We just love Chinese food."