Julia Ning dredges and fries juicy chicken thighs in a wispy blend of cornstarch, tapioca starch, and turmeric. The result is gluten-free and healthful. But that's not why the 33-year-old does it. She remembers that it once prepared her and now-shuttered Khong River House chef Sudarat Loasupho for long days of work.
Many of the two dozen or so options at Ning's 10-month-old Station 5 Table & Bar come with similarly personal tales. You could draw a straight line from her short-rib tacos to the beef stews that her French-Canadian grandmother, "MeMe," cooked long ago.
Such heartwarming stories are commonplace in the kitchen. Chefs keep them close at hand for a future cookbook or dewy-eyed food writer. They help provide connection between a guest and a meal.
Ning's story begins at a young age. The loquacious chef grew up cooking and eating alongside her Canadian and Chinese grandmothers. The Chinese side of the family owned a Boston-area restaurant for nearly 70 years. "She had this famous dish of ground lamb and lobster stir-fried oyster sauce and bok choy," she recalls. "We use a similar sauce here that's a bit more rounded out."
Working there was a rite of passage of sorts. But at her family's urging, she went to college to pursue a business degree. Still, she couldn't stay away from the kitchen. After a short corporate life working for Swedish furniture giant IKEA and then running her own small jewelry company, she began cooking in a Baltimore Italian restaurant.
That career soon mushroomed into a cross-country odyssey that included stints at Kimpton Hotel properties stretching from California to New York. There was also a brutal tenure at Chris Nugent's Michelin-starred Goosefoot in Chicago. "We were there six or seven days a week for the first five months, doing 14-course tasting menus for 30 people a night," she says.
She moved to Miami in early 2012 at the request of E. Michael Reidt, with whom she had once worked at Baltimore's B&O American Brasserie. At the time, he was running the kitchen at the Epic Hotel's seafood haven, Area 31. She remained there for a year and a half as a sous-chef until Reidt's departure and then crossed the bridge to work at Khong River House.
Station 5 Table & Bar
Heirloom tomato salad $13
Polenta with Sublicious Farms' mushrooms $13
Braised short-rib tacos $16
Gluten-free fried chicken $19
House-made lox $12
About a year ago, she left Khong to start her own place. The result is a 68-seater featuring a wall dotted with hanging glass terrariums. The place fills early, leaving crowds tapping their feet outside while waiting for a table. They peer longingly through a plate-glass window at weathered gray-brown tables covered with eight kinds of tacos.
To make these beauties, flour tortillas are filled with a combination of Peking-style chicken skin with gingered soy sauce and cilantro alongside Thai-style fried fish that harks back to Ning's Khong days. A spicy green papaya slaw crowns it all.
The strangest and most popular of the tacos is the short rib topped with Cheetos. Though it may sound goofy, Ning says she has sold nearly 30,000 of them. That's likely because she braises the fatty ribs in a combination of red wine and malta for six hours before shredding and cooking them sous vide for another 12. The braising liquid is reduced and then whisked into a blond roux to give it body and richness. By the time the Cheetos are brought in, the fake-cheese flavor is barely perceptible. They provide a welcome crunch and also give Ning a quick fix of the addiction she has fed since she was young.
"People think I'm a stoner, but I'm not," she says. "I just like eating junk food a lot."
Later, red clay cazuelas brim with a fluffy, mousse-like polenta topped with a smattering of mushrooms from Oakland Park's Sublicious Farms. The shiitake and oyster mushrooms are flash-roasted to concentrate their loam and then sautéed in a combination of butter, garlic, white wine, and thyme that helps brighten the underlying porridge.
Ning seizes the brief moment when the height of peach season overlaps with the tail end of tomato season, plating glistening wedges of both atop a bed of baby arugula that cuts some of the sweetness. Shavings of milky, musty ricotta salata cheese layer on some welcome richness.
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She also makes smart use of salmon-belly trimmings by burying them for days at a time in a blend of salt, sugar, cayenne, fenugreek, and coriander. Ning calls the result lox, but it's closer to the cured salmon called gravlax. These details are of little concern when you're busy stacking the stuff onto olive-oil-rubbed slices of Zak the Baker rye. It all comes with plum-colored pickled onions and an addictive lime-infused crème fraîche.
The lone letdown here is a bread pudding made of sweetened-milk-soaked baguette bits topped with rum-plumped raisins. The starchy, crusty French loaves — which Ning ate constantly at her French-Canadian grandmother's side — don't take as well to the milk and arrive dense and flavorless despite an accompanying scoop of creamy homemade vanilla ice cream.
Indeed, the deep ties to her childhood and life are part of nearly every dish on Ning's ever-changing menu. But more important, every plate delights, whether or not you know the inspiration. So, if you like, ask for the story when you get a dish, but don't feel bad if you have to spend hours listening.