When Richard Hales opened Sakaya Kitchen in 2009, the "fast-casual, Asian-inspired, organic-conscious restaurant" quickly became an obsession of many Miamians who craved flavorful food that wouldn't break their budgets.
The restaurant served everything from Korean-style barbecue to "chunk'd" tater tots smothered in cheese and beef. Hales, who attended the French Culinary Institute in New York and worked under Jean-Georges Vongerichten, says he opened Sakaya Kitchen because "that's what I wanted to eat right then."
Now, two restaurants and two food trucks later, it seems Hales wants to eat Chinese food after having had a taste for it on a trip last year that took the chef/restaurateur to Korea, Tokyo, and northeast China.
"I took a boat from South Korea to an area called Dongbei in China to check out the 'northeast' style of food. It was a wild ride. I headed a bit farther northeast, actually very close to North Korea. After visiting a few places in Dongbei, I headed across Bohai Bay and followed the Yellow River, eating seafood until I reached Shandong."
He found the cuisine in that part of the world vastly different from the Chinese food with which Americans are familiar. "You get a lot of dumplings and bread and very little rice, because rice isn't grown there. There are a lot of roasted meats, served with almost a nan naan-style bread. That's something we can gravitate to as Americans."
Hales discovered more contrasts between Americanized Chinese food and the cuisine in China. "The food there is more pungent, and here it's sweeter. We have more fried foods. There are things you just don't recognize. I was eating charcuterie and stir-fried bread -- I'd never heard of stir-fried bread."
He will have the opportunity to introduce Miami to some of the cuisine he experienced when Blackbrick opens in early November at 3451 NE First Avenue. The intimate, 50-seat restaurant, named for the black tea that was once used as currency in China, will be Hales' answer to the dearth of good, affordable Chinese restaurants in Miami.
The menu will be a hybrid of different regional cuisines, including dishes he experienced in Dongbei, but Hales knows there will be certain expectations. "You can mimic a restaurant in China here, but people will still want ribs, General Tso's chicken, and a fortune cookie. Danny Serfer from Blue Collar keeps feeding me information on what I need to have on the menu to be a proper Chinese restaurant: There better be fried noodles when you sit down, and there better be wonton soup. I lived in New York for ten years. I was eating lamb with cumin in Flushing, Queens. I know a place in San Francisco that has great chow fun. I want to do a really good house fried rice."
Taking cues from his formal training and his eating experiences in China, Hales is creating a hybrid menu. "I don't want to say it's going to be authentic, because everyone has their own interpretation of authentic. Besides, there's a lot of crappy-assed authentic food in China. Let's make it good first and then worry about being authentic later."