Congratulations on five years in! That's quite an accomplishment. Do you remember day one?
Blayne Daley: Yes. [To Phil.] Do you remember day one?
Phil Tang: Hmm. Not really. The days have all sort of run together. I do remember friends and family, and I guess I remember bits and pieces of day one. I definitely remember the ambulance.
Wait, what? The ambulance, on day one?
PT: At that point, we didn't have a frier, and we were just using a pot of oil and a candy thermometer. It broke at some point and fell into the oil. This happened after we had closed, and the sous chef had eaten something that was from the pot. He worked himself up a bit into a panic attack, and we had to call an ambulance. He ended up being completely fine, but it was definitely a memorable thing to happen on the first day.
Do you remember what you were feeling on day one?
"If the kitchen is good, the service is good, then people will come."
PT: We had a decent amount of press leading up to the first day, and I just remember thinking, "What the fuck are we doing?" and hoping we were ready for it all and hoping we'd be able handle it all. There was a lot of nervous energy in making sure the operation was going to run smoothly. But my thought on the restaurant industry has always been that if the kitchen is good, the service is good, then people will come.
You just changed the look of the restaurant as well as the menu. How else would you say that the restaurant has changed in the five years it's been open?
BD: From a front-of-the-house standpoint, we went from a casual service to much more of a fine dining-like service when we did the five- and the eight-course tasting menus. Things like switching out of plates and silverware. My attitude has always been a little more casual, and our new menu has brought things back to a casual atmosphere, which is what Phil was going for in the beginning.
How have people liked the new menu changes?
BD: I think people have loved it. We didn't get any backlash or anything like that. I mean, there were some people that I think were disappointed because they couldn't get the tasting menus anymore. I think it was because people liked that they didn't have to make any decisions. But at the end of the day, they still don't have to. I can make decisions for people; I'm very good at ordering for people. But people have really liked that they can get the ramen six nights a week, and they love the multitude of noodle dishes and the variety, as well as a couple of shared plates that people can order for the table. I've heard nothing but great things. We've seen a lot of people come in for our Power Hour, which we have Tuesday through Thursday. For $25, they get full and happy.
Any specific dishes that have been on your menu since day one?
PT: The pork ragu has come on and off since day one, or at least some rendition of it. The braised beef shank, with the exception of the summertime, is usually on too. The pork belly bun and the other two are sort of our staple dishes, and they've been around since the beginning.
BD: Just like me and you!
Would you also say that those are your most popular dishes?
"Right now we're selling far more ramen than anything else."
PT: Not necessarily, although I think the pork belly bun is one of the most popular. Everyone likes a pork belly bun. The beef ragu and the beef shank are popular too, but right now we're selling far more ramen than anything else, far and away. But those two dishes are important to me to have on the menu, because when I first came up with the concept for this restaurant, I drew on a lot of inspiration from my family's restaurant in northern Virginia. Those are my versions of my favorite dishes at their restaurant, and that was my interpretation of those dishes and where I was coming from.
BD: That's also the first thing you do when you go home, isn't it? Stop in and get the beef at your family's restaurant?
PT: You know it. It's my favorite.
So what sparked all this change? The new facelift in the dining room and changes to the menu?
"When you hit five years, it's always good to keep things moving a bit, I think."
PT: When you hit five years, it's always good to keep things moving a bit, I think. And one of the motivators that sparked all of this was that our old chairs were falling apart. To be perfectly honest, that's what sparked the change. We started replacing the chairs and were getting closer to the five-year point, so we thought we'd give the whole dining room a little makeover. It was kind of weird to look out at the same dining room for about five years and then to change it over to something else. But I think it really opens up the space and makes it a little lighter and airier.
BD: I think it looks great. Phil picked the scheme and did a lot with it artistic-wise, and then I picked out the plates and hung everything up.
PT: Yeah, it was a definitely a very collaborative effort, and we're happy with the results.
How do you think that the neighborhood has changed in five years?
BD: We have a lot more neighbors now. Clover, Grillo's, soon BISq, Puritan & Co.; those are all new in the past five years.
PT: We've got a new Bukowski, and Hops n' Scotch is coming in too. I think the neighborhood has changed in certain ways, but in other ways, it's still pretty much the same.
BD: I think Inman Square is more on the map now too. I mean, people always knew Harvard Square and Central Square, but now, within the past five years, this neighborhood has been pushed forward a little more. Especially with such other restaurants like Oleana and Bondir here too. They're all fantastic restaurants.
What are some memorable moments for you over the past five years?
BD: I waited on Grant Achatz once. That was a highlight for me. As a culinary nerd, that was exciting. But I also get really excited about local chefs that come in. We've also had a lot of regulars that come in and it's been great meeting people. That's the highlight for me. Phillip, what's your highlight? Besides meeting me, of course.
PT: [Laughs.] Yes, obviously meeting Blayne has been memorable. But in seriousness, it's hard for me to pin specific things or moments down. Generally just getting some recognition for doing what we do here has been great. We're essentially just a tiny restaurant off the beaten path and with no PR behind us. We've been in Food & Wine and Bon Appetit, and getting that acknowledgement for something that all of us have worked really hard on together has been the biggest thing for me. I think just getting to this point of five years has been the greatest for me.
"I knew what I wanted to cook, and I started there. It's been pretty cool to watch it all evolve."
It's been fun, because we have such a small restaurant, it's not like faceless customers come in and out; we really develop relationships with people. We also have a really great staff, and we're small, so we all we get to know each other. We have one guy that started with us on day one, and he worked himself up from dishwasher to line cook. He put himself through high school and learned English, and he's starting to take college courses. I think everyone here has just come a really long way. I mean, Blayne started here as a part-time server and then moved to full-time, and now she's general manager; she's become the face of this restaurant. People call in, and they want to make a reservation, and they know to ask for her. There's just been a lot of growth for everyone, the restaurant included. It all started with this idea of what I wanted to do, and we didn't know where any of it was going to go. I knew what I wanted to cook, and I started there. It's been pretty cool to watch it all evolve.
How closely does your original vision match where the restaurant is today?
PT: I think right now, with the way we have the menu set up, it's much closer to what I had originally envisioned. I always wanted it to be noodle-focused. That has always been the focus, and even throughout when we were doing the tasting menus, we always wanted it to be casual and not the type of place where you needed to make reservations. You can just pop in, grab a bowl of noodles, and be in and out in thirty minutes. I think we're closer now to what I originally had in mind.
Looking ahead, what do you have planned for the next five years?
PT: That's a good question. Definitely just working day by day on some stuff for next year or so. Nothing is final or solidified, but there's definitely some stuff coming down the line. That's all I've got for that one.