How Ryan Wong turned his one restaurant, Needle, into many over the course of three fraught and unpredictable years.
At the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Hyperion Avenue, in Silver Lake, the word Needle curves along a bright green awning in white cursive lettering. One might not guess that this corner has become a go-to destination for modern Cantonese cooking, but that’s just what’s in store at Chef Ryan Wong’s innovative restaurant, where the small dining room and patio teem nightly with diners eager to taste his creations.
Wong has transformed Needle several times since opening in 2019, reinventing and reimagining the original concept, flirting with both casual and fine dining, to adapt to the pandemic. A timeline of his pivots and pirouettes showcases what a chef can learn while facing the impossible and attempting to keep an independent business afloat.
Wong, who formerly worked alongside Michael Voltaggio at Ink, Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec, and with Tim Hollingsworth at Otium, opened in October of 2019 with a small plates concept, with dishes between four dollars and $30. He worked to perfect his now soughtafter char siu pork shoulder, plating it as if being presented to royalty. “That came from working in fine dining for my whole career,” says Wong. “I just can’t shake it.” He also introduced a dish popular in Hong Kong and Macau, a pork chop bun, and served white cut chicken with ginger scallion sauce; cold tofu, mushrooms, and fried eggplant balanced out the menu. Customers quickly flocked to the small storefront for beautiful, technique-driven plates with soulful flavors.
“When the pandemic first began, I thought that would be the end of Needle,” says Wong. After being closed for two months following the shutdown in March 2020, Wong revamped with a to-go menu of rice plates that he cooked alone in the kitchen, counting on his wife, Karen Wong, to help and pack orders. “It was something that people could take home and eat right away or keep in their fridge and reheat later,” explains Wong. “We made a tofu fried rice, a pork chop fried rice, and chicken steak rice with black pepper sauce.” The Wongs were in survival mode until they felt ready to bring back most of the original Needle menu for take-out.
“Not being able to have indoor dining, I wanted to foster that connection with our guests that we were missing, so I thought, Why not bring the cooking outside?”
Wong then decided to plan a menu of grilled skewers inspired by his days in Hong Kong, where he staged at a few restaurants. “Not being able to have indoor dining, I wanted to foster that connection with our guests that we were missing, so I thought, Why not bring the cooking outside?” He started a pop-up every other Tuesday, called Siu Yeh, where he fired up a Japanese-style konro grill and began to cook up creative skewers: a pork jowl with black bean sauce, oyster mushroom with spicy salt, Cherng fun with sesame and hoisin, and pork meatball inspired by Japanese tsukune. Eventually Wong added congee, soy sauce chicken wings, and a few fried items.
When another wave of Covid arrived in the spring of 2021, Wong closed the patio and came up with a bold new plan: an 11-course tasting menu for one table a night for six to eight guests, at $120 a person. “I wanted it to be more of a feast,” says Wong, who was inspired by the Cantonesestyle banquet meals typically served at weddings. “The focus was a little more seafood heavy, like lobster with noodles with ginger and scallion. Being able to have free reign and use ingredients that are a little more expensive was fun.” This menu was served four nights a week for five months. “We were doing take-out at the same time,” he explains. “It was kind of rough to manage both.”
“We then pivoted to a Siu Yeh tasting menu with the skewers,” says Wong, explaining the shift as a response to the pandemic easing and wanting to serve a larger number of customers. Wong created a set menu for $98 a person of ten skewers, including a curry octopus and black cod with sweet and sour papaya. Five snacks, like winter melon soup with dried scallop, were offered as palate cleansers. They served this menu at Needle until the early arrival of the Wongs’ first baby, on Christmas day of 2021. The new addition to their family prompted another break.
When home with their newborn, Wong thought about how he wanted to do things going forward. “We were really concerned about our baby’s health with Covid still being a thing,” he says, explaining the decision to revert back to take-out, this time with a Hong Kong-style café menu: pork chop rice, chicken steak rice, baked seafood pasta. Wong knew he couldn’t return to a more complicated menu or serving diners on the premises until they hired more servers.
By March of 2022, they had staffed up and launched the current menu, which in ways is a mashup of all past incarnations. At prices similar to when they opened, Wong now offers a series of skewers a la carte: curry shrimp, ginger scallion chicken, pork meatball and sugar snap peas with lemon. There is a stir-fried udon dish and ong choy with fermented bean curd. The cold tofu is back, along with a pork jowl char siu. Wong’s passion for cooking—and for Hong Kong’s flavors—comes through in every bite. “It’s hard to change a concept and get people to buy into it and accept it,” he says. “Our customers have followed us along the way and it has been amazing.”