Past perfect in Chelsea

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Shorty Tang Noodles reprises a city archetype


  • Chen Lieh Tang in the 1980s. His new Chelsea restaurant, Shorty Tang Noodles, returns classic renditions of Szechuan cuisine to the city. Photo courtesy of Tang family

  • Chen Lieh Tang and his son, James, in their new restaurant, Shorty Tang Noodles, on Eight Avenue and 15th Street. Photo: Lily Haight

Lunchtimes, and at all times, Chen Lieh Tang can be glimpsed in his Chelsea kitchen leaning into steaming pots of Chinese egg noodles, mixing sauces, and teaching his cooks the tricks of his trade.

Since the March opening of his restaurant, Shorty Tang Noodles, on Eighth Avenue and 15th Street, the 64-year-old Tang has been in the kitchen every day, overseeing the making of each dish.

His son, James Tang, says he has a habit of micromanaging. Tang says he just loves to cook. Tang said he developed his devotion from his father, the legendary chef Yun Fa Tang.

“Some people can cook for 20 years and still be lousy. For some people, it just takes two or three years to get the talent,” Tang said following a recent lunch rush. “My father, he had the talent.”

Yun Fa Tang, known as “Shorty Tang” because of his 5-foot stature, was born in China’s Szechuan province, but moved to Taiwan during the Communist revolution. He then immigrated to New York with his wife and six children in 1964. He was one of the first chefs to introduce Szechuan cuisine to New Yorkers.

“He was one of the most, if not the most successful chefs in Taiwan in the early 60s,” said James Tang. In New York, the restaurant business became a family affair.

Shorty Tang’s first restaurant, Hwa Yuan, at 42 East Broadway in Chinatown, was renowned for its cold sesame noodles.

“My dad and his brother started off as dishwashers in the kitchen. They’d have these garbage bags that they’d cut a hole in the top, cut a hole in the bottom and that was their poncho when they were washing dishes,” James Tang said. “My dad must have been in his early-20s or late teens before he could graduate to becoming a busboy and then a waiter and a delivery guy, then a sous-chef.”

Thirty years after Tang died and Hwa Yuan shut its doors, New Yorkers still remember his cooking. In 2007, New York Times food critic Sam Sifton praised Shorty Tang’s most famous dish, saying that “it was Shorty Tang who cooked the best cold sesame noodles Manhattan ever tasted.”

Now, the celebrated noodle dish is back as one of the main menu items at his son’s Chelsea restaurant. There are other Szechuan and Taiwanese dishes on the menu, of course, such steamed sticky rice with pork short ribs and spicy wontons.

After Shorty Tang died, Chen Lieh Tang took over the restaurant on East Broadway and opened several of his own restaurants, Tang’s Chariot on 53rd Street, Tangy on 42nd Street, and Tang Tang Noodles and More, which had five locations. While he knows all the ins and outs of restaurant management, it’s the cooking that Chen Lieh Tang enjoys the most.

“I love French food, Italian food, I love street food. I’m not a picky eater,” said Chen Lieh Tang. “I know how to cook Italian food, French food, Japanese food. But the most difficult food to make is Chinese food… If you want to cook it right, it’s not easy.”

His new shop is an updated version of a New York Chinese takeout shop. During the lunch rush, sunlight streams through the front windows of the narrow restaurant, illuminating the tabletops, but not quite reaching the open kitchen where Tang and his cooks are churning out the restaurant’s fare.

The walls are minimally decorated with a few paintings of the Chinese countryside. The open kitchen is a preference of Chen Lieh Tang, who follows in the tradition of his father in coming out of the kitchen to greet customers and wants them to be able to see their food being made.

“The recipes that we use are the same ones that my grandfather used, the exact same ones. The secret’s really in the sauces,” said James Tang, who works as an investment banker but grew up spending his summers washing dishes and bussing tables at his dad’s restaurants. “There was an unmet need for good Chinese food in New York. … My dad wants to bring it back to what it originally was, but improve on that.”

Even though Shorty Tang’s original Hwa Yuan closed down in 1989 and Chen Lieh left the restaurant business to go back to Taiwan for a few years, the original building at 42 East Broadway remained in the family.

With the Chelsea noodle shop now open and running, Chen Lieh and James Tang are focusing on designing final touches of the new Hwa Yuan, which will be a grand three-floor restaurant with a translucent marble bar and artwork handpicked by Chen Lieh Tang. He is hoping to open Hwa Yuan this summer. Every detail is important, his son said. “He personally designed the Peking duck machine and had it made in China,” said James.

Meanwhile, James Tang is just excited to be joining his dad in the restaurant business and preserving his grandfather’s legacy in New York.

“I’ve never really been a part of the restaurant business. I’m learning a lot of family history that I didn’t know and about the history of Chinese restaurants in New York and the gazillion factors that play into it,” said James Tang. “And I’ve gotten to know [my dad] better. He’s taught me a lot.”

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