In a Nutshell: Keegan Fong on the five flavors at the heart of his Chinese restaurant
The old saying “Mother knows best” is certainly proven to be true by the success of Woon, a family-run Chinese noodle cart that has just opened its first permanent restaurant in L.A.
“The menu is entirely my mom’s original recipes that we grew up eating,” says Keegan Fong, the owner of Woon, who lovingly describes his mother not only as the head chef, but also the mascot and lifeblood of the project. “It’s very nostalgic and none of it is altered to suit the tastes of the general public,” he continues, explaining how Woon is influenced by all types of Chinese cuisine, focusing on the areas his mother lived before emigrating to the US in the ‘60s, namely Shanghai and Hong Kong. “I think in general Shanghainese cuisine is usually a bit sweeter… although my mom hates adding sugar to recipes,” Fong jokes.
“Sharing my mom’s food with the public has always been a dream in my family, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally do that.”
Although he thinks that all of his mom’s original recipes are “amazing,” Fong asserts that Woon’s “main attraction” is their stir-fried noodle dish, believing that its popularity is the main reason they’ve been able to open their first brick and mortar restaurant after running pop-ups for the past four years. “The first opportunity came about when my Uncle Joel was hosting a pretty well-known art event at his store, JF Chen Antiques,” Fong explains. “They were looking for a food vendor, and I told him that if he gave me 30 days, I could put together a concept to sell at the event. Somehow we pulled everything together, and we sold out of noodles both days,” he says proudly. “Sharing my mom’s food with the public has always been a dream in my family, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally do that,” Fong adds. So from then on Woon grew from a one-hit wonder to being invited to participate in events all over L.A. “We started hosting our own back alley pop-ups behind our friend’s office in Koreatown called Pico Studio,” Fong explains. “We’d pop up the cart, sell noodles, and people would show up through the alley with beers while a DJ entertained us with music. It was super underground at the time.”
After four years of this nomadic lifestyle, Woon has now settled down in its first permanent restaurant situated in the L.A. district of Rampart Village. “After almost a year of searching for a space all over L.A., we landed on this neighborhood and I’m so happy we did,” says Fong. “It borders so many interesting neighborhoods like Westlake, Echo Park, Silverlake and Koreatown. These are all parts of town I grew up around but not realizing that it’s where I’d end up,” he continues, revealing that it’s not just the menu at Woon that is nostalgic, but also its location. Fong does recognize however that there are controversial issues about setting up shop in a developing area. “Gentrification is a sensitive topic in L.A. right now and it feels weird to be on the fringes of participating in it,” he confesses. “However, I think it all depends on how you approach your neighbors. We didn’t come in and jack up the prices, we’re just serving downright good Chinese food at an affordable cost.” As a result, the community has welcomed Woon with open arms, which Fong says is a great feeling. “The neighbors have all lived in this area for so long and it’s nice to be able to employ some of them as well.”
These humble, socially conscious values also reflect the fact that, despite Woon’s burgeoning success, the Fong family is keen not to forget how their business started. “The restaurant is an iteration of our pop-ups,” Fong says, “so we just kept the menu super small and simple in order to not get too far away from where we started.” But that doesn’t mean it won’t expand in the future. “My mom’s recipe book is thick, so we hope one day to be successful enough that we can expand the menu and still operate efficiently!” One thing’s for sure, though, however big Woon gets, family values, and Fong’s mom in particular will still remain at the heart of the business. “It’s been an insane ride,” Fong admits. “I could not do it without this family.”
Keegan Fong selects the top five flavors that define Woon’s menu
“This is cheesy, but ‘love’ is probably the first ingredient. The menu is all homestyle, meaning it’s our family’s comfort food. It’s what my mom’s been cooking for us since we can remember, and it’s made with a lot of love and constant tweaking over a lifetime.”
“Our stir fry noodles are the star of the show, and that can be credited to the texture and thickness of the noodles we use. They are wheat-based and thicker than your average noodle. It also has some spring to it, which gives it a good chewiness. Almost like an al dente pasta. People love it.”
“This is a cliché one, but it’s used in all of our dishes. A lot of people don’t know but there’s so many varieties of soy sauce and we use all of them. Light, dark, seasoned – they all serve different purposes for different dishes. It is unfortunately tough for those that are gluten free though because it’s hard to replace all the different varieties we use in our dishes.
“All types of it. White, dark, rice. We use it all, and they serve different purposes. Our family loves the taste of vinegar, and it’s used in a lot of our dishes. We usually recommend customers to dress their noodles “Mama’s Way.” She always adds garlic chili sauce with white vinegar…it’s the way she taught us growing up.”
“It’s not intentional, but almost half of our menu is vegetarian and consists of tofu, or some variation of it. When we created this small menu, it was based off of the recipes that we liked the most and we thought could be executed the most efficiently. It just happened that half of the things we loved consisted of bean curd or tofu.”
Translating to “bowl” in English, Woon is a family run Shanghainese noodle cart, which has just opened its first restaurant in Rampart Village, an upcoming L.A neighbourhood south of Silverlake and west of Filipinotown. Owner Keegan (who has been working in brand building and marketing for the past ten years) was inspired to start the business by his mother’s original Chinese recipes, which he loved as a child and wanted to share with the public. To find out more follow them on Instagram.
Text: Emily May