Ho Foods, recently opened in January 2018 in the East Village, brings home-style and modernized Taiwanese food to New York. Inspired by chef/owner Richard Ho’s Taiwanese roots, the restaurant pays homage to classic flavors and techniques by way of San Gabriel Valley, California, the “mecca of Taiwanese food in America.”
The restaurant focuses the diner experience around Richard’s signature dish, traditional Beef Noodle Soup served with freshly made noodles, pasture-raised beef shank, house fermented mustard greens, and a savory 10 hour broth.
TAP-NY caught up with Richard on an early Sunday morning to learn more about how his childhood and experience in the restaurant scene led to his latest venture.
What was your path into the culinary world?
I’ve always wanted to be in restaurants. I started working at this greasy diner that sold chicken and waffles, burgers, and some Thai food in West Berkeley next to an animation studio.
My first job was in the kitchen, and I slowly moved to be a barista. The owners said if you want to learn how the restaurant actually runs, show up at 6am and learn how to make coffee. And this was a hard gig – 6am in the morning and you’re looking at 10-20 people in line – you gotta know your shit.
After I left college, I ran around for a year couch surfing at friends’ places. My buddy had a room in Park Slope for a month, and so I came over to crash.
I walked down the street to every single restaurant and this one sushi place offered me a spot, so I took it. I stuck with them – Blue Ribbon Sushi – and when we opened in Midtown I was part of the opening crew and became the manager in a couple years in.
How did food play an impact on you growing up?
Ever since I could remember, I always wanted to be in the culinary world. Always wanted to. Of course our parents don’t prefer this career path, but also our parents love to eat. So you have to blend them a little bit.
When we were kids one of my favorite memories was when our dad would be like, lets drive an hour to Costa Mesa to try this new Japanese BBQ place. And as a parent, if that was your fun – geeking out over food – you’ve got to expect your kids to also like food since it reminds them of those good memories.
When we used to hang with buddies I’d always be the one making late night eats or grilling food. In high school, at 2am instead of going to Jack in the Box or Del Taco, we used to make tons of quesadillas at home.
And I’d wonder, how do you make it just like the fast food places? You can’t just put cheese – you need to put some of that artificial nacho cheese so it’s all gooey. So we’d put in half good cheese like some natural cheddar, and half shitty nacho cheese from a jar. So I always liked to cook. And the first time I ever cooked, when my parents were gone and left dinner to me, I cooked for my sister. I went to the pantry and put in every single sauce and she was like “we’re getting pizza”.
What’s the story behind Ho Foods? How did this all get started?
I’ve been working on this for about 2 years off and on. I’ve always known that I wanted to focus on beef noodle soup, and so that’s what we did.
We did that in our pop up shops, and part of it was figuring everything out from how to make the stock, the soup base, the meat, and all of the preparation and processes.
But really it came together after signing the lease. That’s when it felt real.
Have your parents tasted your food yet?
No, they actually haven’t yet – they say New York’s too cold! My dad is actually in Taiwan right now and my mom is in Cali.
Do you have anything you’re looking forward to this year?
We’re always continually improving our food, and we want to make the best version of beef noodle soup that we can. We want to be able to roll out a few more items for the daytime – but I think this year I just want to be here in the moment. Let’s see how this plays out, keep on pushing, and get some people on board. It seems that Taiwanese food is something that a lot of people are looking for.
I’m really happy people are coming – honestly, I didn’t know if people would even show up. The response and the amount of people that are coming back, it really makes me happy.
What are your thoughts on the Taiwanese food scene in New York?
One word of advice to aspiring restaurateurs – we’re not doing this to cash in, we do this because it’s something we want to do, and people have been very supportive about that.
I think every restaurant person knows each other and wants to bring each other up. Our community is very supportive these days, and so I’m excited for the future – not just for new Asian restaurants but bigger Asian groups. Imagine instead of an American restaurant within the NoMad Hotel, what if an Asian/Asian American group creates something there. And it’s starting to happen, like at 50 Bowery, and I’m excited to see that happen.
In terms of identity – how do you view yourself?
I grew up speaking Chinese before speaking English. I grew up in a place where restaurants were catered to Asian people in America. I was born here. But whenever people come visit me they’re like, you live in Asia. We’d wake up, eat a Taiwanese breakfast, for lunch we’d get noodles, hit up Cantonese seafood for dinner, then maybe grab boba tea afterwards. I like Asian culture and the tradition and history behind how we were raised, and how we grow up and develop our own perspective.
But I’m definitely American – I went to school here, got educated here, and I think that I’m both, for sure. I don’t know if one is more than the other.
It’s just who we are – Asian American is just one thing that we are. And there’s a lot of diversity within that – we’re all kind of the same and familiar, but what’s cool is that we’re all different people with different personalities.
What do you like most about Taiwan?
One thing I like about Taiwan is that food is amazing and very fresh. Every shop buys from the nearby wet market. Places don’t have industrial trucks driving around and dropping off processed ingredients. Everyone buys produce locally and they geek out about their food.
There’s also this certain warmth about going back that feels like home – that everyone I talk to is my auntie or uncle. All these things that you grew up feeling and experiencing, you go back and you feel all those things, even though I’ve never lived there for an extended period of time. Taiwan is awesome – what more can you say.
Images by Kevin Wong for TAP-NY