Long before Bill Young, the 57-year-old chef and owner of Red Shallot (9032 NW 25th St., Doral; 305-477-2513), began serving his Taiwanese picadillo, residents of his densely populated home island off China's eastern coast have enjoyed a dish of ground pork belly aggressively seasoned and served atop of a bed of rice with strands of pickled mustard greens. When Young decided to open his restaurant, he knew he wanted to put some version of it on the menu.
"We didn't want to serve it the traditional way because we didn't think anyone would order it," he says on a recent weekday afternoon while bouncing between the restaurant's kitchen and dining room, which has unexpectedly filled for a late lunch rush.
Young, whose given name is Yiuhun, is tall with a perfectly coiffed swoop of jet-black hair. Since opening the sparse restaurant in 2015, he's spent nearly every day in the kitchen, where he sports braces on both wrists and his back to help allay the physical trauma that cooking can inflict on even young bodies.
As most chefs will attest, opening a restaurant at any time in life is a risky endeavor. Yet Young, along with his wife Yang Su, made the counterintuitive decision to do so as a second career and now offer humble renditions of dishes from across China flecked with the Taiwanese sensibilities Young picked up during his early life on the island.
Born in the capital city of Taipei, Young grew up in a family obsessed with food.
"If we weren't eating, we were talking about eating," he says.
And with a well-to-do businessman father, the family had plenty of opportunities to sample the city's finest restaurants, along with street foods such as beef noodles, stinky tofu, and deep-fried chicken cutlets sprinkled with salt and pepper and served to-go in grease-laden wax paper.
After college, Young landed a job working in cargo transport, which took him around the world with airlines such as Japan's All Nippon Airways, China Eastern Airlines, and, finally, Cathay Pacific, which took him and his family to Miami about a decade ago.
Then, a few years back, while watching a late-night interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks, Young realized he'd had enough of cargo.
"It was about the second peak, the second movement of a person's life, where they've already had a career to earn money and now they want to do something that has meaning and can leave a legacy," Young says. "I knew instantly for me that was food."
It wasn't easy, but with some expense and small improvements, Young figured out how to reconfigure the dishes he'd long cooked at home for a restaurant kitchen. Still, the best move is to ask what kind of experiments he's working on in the kitchen.
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Recently, it was spectacular slices of cold beef with scallions and fermented black bean sauce on sesame bing bread ($6.50). The chewy, slightly oily bun flecked with toasted seeds is a popular breakfast item in Taiwan and northern China. Young fills it with slow-roasted fatty beef simmered in a brew of ginger, garlic, star anise, cloves, basil, and Sichuan peppercorns. The bread's closest analog might be a flaky Trinidadian paratha, and after a first bite, it's easy to understand the urge to order a second, and perhaps a third. Also in the offing was a leek "dumpling" ($3.50) that was sized and shaped more like an empanada but tasted far from anything offered in the Caribbean or Latin America. A tacky, chewy dough similar to that of the sesame flatbread held a mashup of pungent, just-cooked leeks with snappy vermicelli noodles and scrambled eggs. In it hide the delights of a perfectly cooked omelet mashed up with the garlicky, crispy chive cakes that are dim-sum cart treasures.
Young's Taiwanese picadillo ($7.50) is a hit with both the restaurant's sizable Chinese clientele and most others who step through the door. He uses ground pork shoulder cooked down with heaps of shallots, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, and Chinese five-spice powder. Though it lacks the complexity of Cuban picadillo, with its sweet-sour raisin-and-olive contrast, a perfect bite can be assembled with the meat, a few strands of the accompanying pickled mustard greens, and a sliver of hardboiled egg that's been simmered in soy, star anise, cinnamon, and sugar. Similar intensity can be found in Young's beef noodle soup ($12), whose chocolate-colored broth begins by boiling bits of fat-and-sinew-ribboned beef into oblivion and is fortified with dashes of cinnamon, star anise, ginger, and brown sugar. In it go a generous heap of thin egg noodles and handfuls of cabbage, pickled mustard greens, and hunks of beef knuckle meat threaded with rich gelatin deposits.
Young's standbys should sit alongside his latest experiments on every table. Lately, he's been working on a wok-fried shrimp dish in an umami-packed sauce with hints of sweet and sour. Young encourages all of his test subjects to suck the sauce out of the shell-on crustaceans before devouring them. When he's asked whether he might one day serve the shrimp with their heads, his eyes light up.
"That's what I'm hoping for," he says. "The day people ask for them is the day I'll order them."