We spoke with Chef Ryan Wong of Los Angeles’ Needle about how the pandemic put his brand new restaurant to the test.
Needle is tucked away at the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Hyperion Ave. in the trendy, upscale neighborhood of Silverlake. The street is packed with restaurants, shops, bars, coffee shops and fancy juice places—the typical Los Angeles fare. Yet despite its size, you can’t miss Needle’s bright green sign adorned with white cursive script.
The tiny dining room has just 12 seats, with another 17 or so more on the annexed patio. It’s a fast-casual set up where guests order at the counter and take a number back to their table. The space is bright and clean, and the decor is simple. “It’s how I like to eat when I go out. I don't care for anything too flashy,” Chef Ryan Wong, the owner says.
Only about four months into launching his first restaurant, everything shut down. His plans for his space, which had once been to share his delicious Cantonese cuisine, had to adapt significantly, at least for the time being.
“We pretty much had to start over again,” Chef Wong says. “We had to pivot to doing takeout and doing a more simplistic menu.” But that wasn’t the only challenge he faced: he now had no staff. “I was cooking by myself. My wife was helping me out with fulfilling orders. So she was packing all the bags but I was literally the only one in the kitchen. No dishwasher, no cooks, no prep cooks,” he says.
As the pandemic progressed, Sunset remained desolate compared to its once intense and bustling glory. But despite how barren it was outside, the inside of Needle was in a state of constant flux, evolving to suit different needs and tastes. First, Chef Wong offered hot meal kits—multiple servings of rice and noodle-based dishes that could be portioned out and heated up as needed.
It worked well, and Needle was able to weather the first few months of the pandemic without incident. After all, Chinese food does lend itself particularly well to takeout, but an unusual choice of noodle also played a pivotal role. Chef Wong’s Chow Udon, a riff on the takeout classic chow mein, which is typically made with egg noodles, uses a traditional Japanese wheat noodle instead. Udon is sturdier and decidedly less prone to clumping in takeout containers.
This wasn’t your typical take out fare—it was a way to experience the many flavors of Cantonese cuisine during a time when many people were unable to leave their homes. “The primary flavors of Cantonese food are salty-sweet and sweet-sour,” says Chef Wong. “There are also a lot of fresh flavors as well. For example, stir fried vegetables will just be cooked with garlic, salt, and a splash of shaoxing wine, so very simple and clean. Even if I'm trying to do a traditional dish, I layer on as many flavors as I can and try to create a little more depth.”
Needle’s next era saw it transform into a banquet hall. With restaurants tentatively reopening, Chef Wong dipped into his fine dining background to give customers a premium version of the restaurant experience they’d been missing.
“We ended up doing a private dinner series on the patio. Just one table each night, set up as a banquet-style meal for six to eight people. It was a full-course dinner, with 10-11 dishes. We served a lot of seafood—lobster, fish, shrimp and steak as well. It was so cool, people really took to it,” he says.
This particular iteration of the menu did not last very long, as it was a massive undertaking on top of doing takeout at the counter all night. So Chef Wong decided to make another switch. This time, Needle would morph into an izakaya-style restaurant, with a constantly rotating tasting menu. Chef Wong set up a Japanese charcoal grill outside, serving 10 savory dishes, all on skewers, as well as five snacks. “People love having their food cooked in front of them but we had to keep changing it because people also lose interest quickly,” he said.
When his newborn son was born, he switched to take out only for a while to ensure the safety of his family. But now that cases have slowed, he is looking forward to opening the restaurant up again. “I’m very fortunate that my wife and I completely own the restaurant so we can do whatever we want,” Chef Wong says. “We have our regulars, we have our fans, and we also have people who are willing to try whatever we do. They trust us, and we are lucky for that.”