Long-awaited homestyle Taiwanese eatery Zai Lai finally opened its doors in November 2017 at its first permanent retail location in Turnstyle at Columbus Circle. Previously known for its various pop-ups across NYC, Zai Lai specializes in family favorites such as rice bowls, noodles, and traditional street eats like oyster omelettes. TAP-NY met up with Taiwanese American lawyer-turned-restauranteur Edward Huang to learn about how it all got started.
Can you introduce yourself?
Yes, my name is Edward Huang (not to be confused with Eddie Huang, the other Taiwanese lawyer turned restauranteur). My curiosity about food began in elementary school when I could not fathom that some of my (non-Asian) friends didn’t eat rice for dinner. After college, I went back to my roots, spending two years in Taiwan exploring my family heritage with obligatory food tours all around the island. I have staged at James Kitchen in Taipei and Fung Tu in the LES and last worked at Mission Chinese Food before venturing out to open Zai Lai.
So you were a lawyer at first. How did Zai Lai come about and what was your inspiration?
In the beginning, I was just longing for Taiwanese food – a taste of home. I rarely ate Chinese food at restaurants because all the ones near me were too Americanized. Instead, I’d call my mom and make her recipes for myself. In law school, my preferred method of rest on the weekends was to cook, then eat with friends. It gave me a creative and social outlet.
I happened to graduate in 2010, a year where there were three years of unemployed lawyers due to the recession. I had worked in catering in law school to pay my bills and the chef I was working with was opening a restaurant right when I graduated, so he brought me on as his right hand man. It was a fun experience and equipped me with all the tools I needed to open my own restaurant. It’s funny to me how little throw-away or off-hand experiences can end up having a deep impact on life.
What’s Zai Lai all about, and what’s your mission?
Some of the best meals I’ve ever had were family dinners I experienced when visiting Taiwan as a kid. My recollection floods me with feelings: the warmth of being welcomed in, the delight that someone is happy to see me, my wide-eyed enjoyment of fresh, delicious flavors. When I inevitably had to leave, my family’s parting words were “Zai Lai” – “come back soon.” That’s what Zai Lai is about: simple meals served with love and care that nourish our lives.
Additionally, the root of the word “hospitality” is hospital. Enjoying food is meant to be a space of healing and restoration. That’s our mission and opportunity each day – to bring a smile to each of our guests’ faces and make their day. Frankly, that’s what keeps me going on hard days.
What’s your favorite memory of Taiwan?
Aside from the family dinners I mentioned above, it’s definitely my time in the countryside. In particular, there is a natural river within walking distance from my grandmother’s house. Since we were young, my grandmother always forbade us to go there, but my cousins and I would sneak over to play there anyways. We’d swim, catch fish, climb the rocks, and hang out until it got dark. It was only later that I found out that my dad almost drowned in that same river when he was younger, hence the prohibition.
How about your favorite food in Taiwan?
This is a really tough question! From the night markets, I’ve always loved the oyster omelet and fried chicken cutlet. The shaved snow hits the spot on a hot summer day. I can’t get enough of Taiwanese breakfast, especially dan bing or a well-made fan tuan. When I lived in Taiwan, I had a go-to hotpot spot, steamed pork bun spot, dumpling spot, bian dang spot, re chao spot, fried rice spot, and beef noodle spot. They each carry such strong, fond memories for me, that I can’t whittle it down to just one favorite.
What can we find you doing in your free time?
This may be too cliche of an answer, but my favorite thing to do is to hang out with my wife. She’s my best friend and I never know what she’ll say or do next. It was her strength that got me to opening day; I probably would have given up if it wasn’t for her.
I also love cycling when I have the chance, so when it’s warmer, you’d find me on the West Side Highway or riding the Central Park loop.
What do the decorations and photographs in Zai Lai mean to you?
We have a traditional 編兒 that I had made in Taiwan. I wanted to put it right above our entrance like you’d see in Taiwan, but that was nixed by Turnstyle, so we put it on our wall instead. We also have pictures from Taiwan in the 1950s on our wall. One is of my dad with his siblings when he’s three years old. Another shows farm life and the last shows small town life with everyone eating outdoors.