Monkey King Noodle Company began serving Deep Ellum last September out of a tiny old taco stand on Main Street, seemingly finding overnight success with their simple but delicious menu of hand-pulled noodles and soup dumplings. Practically since day one, people have been swarming the small stand daily — rain or shine — to get a taste of what partners Andrew Chen, Michelle Midyette, Michael Chen, and Michael Wang are cooking up. Eater recently caught up with Chen and Midyette to chat about Monkey King's beginnings, startup challenges, and potential expansion plans.
It seems like you guys busy were right off the bat, from basically the first week you opened there's been a line outside.
Andrew Chen: Yeah, we were. Or we felt like we were busy, at least. I think our capacity as it grew, it got busier and busier. We were looking back at the numbers and we made like maybe 50 sales a day for a while and we were like oh my God, this is amazing! Now if we don't make that many sales in an hour, I'm starting to get nervous. So I think as our capacity grew people came to realize hey, it's not as long of a wait and more people would start to show up. So it's always felt busy, but production and sales-wise its also gotten much better and more consistent.
Michelle Midyette: Even that initial level of sales was just way beyond what we expected. We didn't know how people were going to respond. Were they even going to want to eat the food when it was 100 degrees outside? But they did. Even on the hottest days, people are ordering the spiciest, hottest noodle soup. The food really seems to appeal to the Texas palate because it's hearty and spicy with deep flavors.
To what do you credit that early success?
MM: We didn't say a word about opening at all to anyone, so a lot of it is definitely word of mouth. Carol Shih [formerly of D Magazine] actually posted about it first on SideDish and we were like, no wait! We're not ready! [laughs]
AC: We had just opened it up to friends and family on Facebook, like hey, come check us out! Then it just kind of took off. People have said we fill a void here. WIthin the 635 loop of Dallas there just isn't a nice kind of cool, relaxing Chinese food place that we have. You can go to Royal China and it's a great restaurant, we love them, we're good friends with those guys, but it's a 2-hour experience. This is a little different, it's BYOB, it skews to a younger demographic I suppose. People have deemed it hipster Chinese... which, I don't know about that but I guess there are a lot of beards and tats here. [laughs]
How did Monkey King come together in the beginning?
AC: Originally we were like, you know what would be great is if we had a bar. And then we were like hey, it would also be great if we had food at this bar! And then it kind of spiraled from there.
MM: We were like okay well, it would actually be a lot easier to just do food, and we don't actually have enough money to open a bar, so eventually the space dictated what we did.
AC: For us, it was let's make what we love, let's make what we know, and let's make what isn't already here in the area. Asian street food is I feel a universal thing. You can go anywhere in the world and it would be an easy thing for people to catch onto. But it's just not found anywhere in Dallas for some reason, all the Asian restaurants don't endeavor to do that here.
MM: We originally settled on this space as a commissary kitchen for a food truck. Then we had to put so much money into the building to get it up to code because it had been... not up to code for like a decade. We originally thought hey, if we could just pretty up the outside, we could serve food out of here... but that turned out to not be the case.
AC: And it's got a gated parking lot which is like gold here in Deep Ellum, so if we ever wanted to open a food truck we at least have a space we can park it and all that. So it was just a weird coincidence that we kind of stumbled upon it.
Working in such a small space presents its own set of challenges, I'm sure.
AC: We had a couple times when temps have reached up to the high 90's inside. It's miserable enough just being in there [when it's that hot], but for the noodle-making, it kills the dough. Noodle pulling in Texas was something that we just didn't know anything about in the beginning. Noodle making was actually really easy in the wintertime because nothing temperature or humidity-related was affecting it, but as it got a lot hotter and the inside got more humid then it was kind of an interesting struggle. Fortunately the weather's turning again so we're primed for a good winter.
Are you guys still pulling noodles to order? Have you found it incredibly difficult to keep up with the demand as it got busier?
AC: Yes to all that. [laughs] The guy who taught me noodle-making is actually down here now, so he's been helping out with me a lot and he is light years beyond me in terms of technique and all that. He's enjoying the challenge — this is a totally different environment for him in terms of the heat and humidity and all that stuff. He likes being able to figure out the most minute adjustments — one more gram of this and one less gram of that and it changes everything in terms of getting the noodles right. So it's been good.
For now we're still pulling noodles to order for everything. That might change — if we open a Monkey King II and we can't find another noodle maker, for example. But we've always been of the belief that if we're going to make something, then it's going to be the best damn thing possible in that category. So if it's machine-made noodles, we'll buy a machine and make them the best we possibly can.
MM: And it'll always be our recipe. We're not going to start buying Sysco noodles.
AC: Even our dumpling skins we make in-house, which is sort of an afterthought for most restaurants. That's why we're not open on Sundays right now is because we're still there, but we're there wrapping soup dumplings.
Did you guys go through a lot of trials and tribulations as far as deciding what was going to be on the menu?
AC: The menu's small because for every one thing that made it on to the menu, there were three or four things that were good, or even great, but just didn't really pass muster with the average consumer. Some things we tried were just a little too weird.
What would be something that was too weird to go on the menu?
AC: Cold beef tendon salad. It's phenomenal, it's delicious, it looks weird though and if you tell people they're eating a beef tendon salad, they're not going to buy it.
MM: You never know though, I mean look at CBD Provisions and their whole pig's head that's really taken off.
AC: We're gonna put that one on the back burner, I'll just keep that in my back pocket until one day I decide to bust out the beef tendon salad again.
Any new menu items coming up for cold weather?
AC: There's a couple things we're looking at. We want to try to do a pan-fried bun with meat filling, pan-fried so it's nice and crispy on the bottom and then soft and steamed on the top. I think it'd be a great wintertime dish since it's a little heartier.
What roles does everyone play within the restaurant?
MM: Andrew is all restaurant, all the time. Our third partner Michael Wang is our numbers guy and sort of the taskmaster.
AC: He's the one that brings us back to earth, when we're like "let's open a bar!" and he's like uh, let's start a little smaller. His background's in real estate development and he's a wizard with spreadsheets.
MM: So he can project and tell us percentages, like how many more we sold this week than last week, things like that. He nerds out over that stuff which is great because of course we need that information. I handle anything on the creative side — so the design of the building, the website, any media stuff, PR, t-shirts, all that stuff.
AC: All the stuff I don't want to deal with. [laughs]
So what were you guys doing before this?
AC: I was managing the Times Ten Cellars in Fort Worth, so I was doing wine for several years. Which was good, it made me really appreciate that whole process of taking something from raw ingredients to a finished product. That spilled over into what we wanted to do with this concept. There's wholesalers out there where you can buy noodles, you can buy dumplings, basically take them from a prepackaged bag and just dump them into a steamer. Maybe some people will taste the difference, maybe not, but there's something to be said for the fact that we took this from flour and water all the way to the noodles you're eating right now. I think that's more relevant to the culinary conversation in Dallas than hey, we just opened a Fast Wok or whatever the hell.
So as a wine guy, what wine would you pair with say, the spicy beef noodles?
AC: I'm a fan of sparkling wine because it can go with anything. I totally believe that. Even a nice rose, that'd be good. I'd probably go sparkling though.
What do you guys like about being in Deep Ellum? It's hard to picture Monkey King being anywhere else at this point.
MM: I've never felt a sense of community like it is down here. People are really watching out for each other, everybody knows everybody else.
AC: Deep Ellum is great and we love it, I think every day about how we just fell into this space and it worked out perfectly. We potentially looked at Uptown, Lower Greenville, all those places — and it's not to say we still wouldn't open there if we found the right space — but I think the community here really helped to define our company culture and it will moving forward, too. People have said hey, a lot of restaurants are moving up to Plano these days, have you considered opening up there? And I look at our staff and I'm like, half of these guys have tats everywhere and huge ear gauges, I don't know if they're cut out for Frisco. [laughs] But we like that, these are people that live in the neighborhood and it's part of our identity.
The greatest photo I never got, when I'm inside pulling noodles I like to watch out the window who's eating at the tables. There was a group of Buddhist monks here, like legit Buddhist monks, shaved heads, didn't speak English, were eating all vegetarian things — sitting next to two guys who were tatted up head to toe. And I was like, this is exactly what I wanted. Anyone can come here, and I don't think that's something you get with every neighborhood. It's like a Hands Across America ad.