Chef Brian Tsao Hits All the Right Notes

June 18, 2015 8:02 pm Last Updated: September 8, 2015 7:34 am

Crrrrrrunch. That’s the sound when you take that first bite into Brian Tsao’s Beef Bulgogi Tacos—the cracking of the wonton shell encasing the tender beef and kimchi slaw.

*Crrrrunch* Beef Bulgogi Tacos. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
*Crrrrunch* Beef Bulgogi Tacos. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

One also imagines it was the crushing sound that accompanied Tsao’s victory over Bobbly Flay during a taco throwdown last year, with that particular taco.

“It was on my bucket list for a while to beat an Iron Chef,” said Tsao, the chef at Mira Sushi & Izakaya in the Flatiron District.

Now is a good moment for Tsao, who’s opening the anticipated Kimoto Beer Garden this August on top of the Sheraton hotel, a few blocks away from Barclays Center. And, on top of that, he is expecting a newborn in July.

His success is also sweet vindication of a path less traveled but wholly authentic to him.

Born and raised in New York City, and the child of a Taiwanese father and Korean mother, Tsao grew up on a myriad of flavors. On any given evening, dinner might be scallion-cilantro-soy sauce-accented fish side by side with kimchi soup. Never fusion, though, mind you. Or you might find American fare such as clam chowder or ribeye steak.

Green Tea S'mores. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Green Tea S’mores. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

School food made a deep impression on Tsao.

“Deep down I thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” he said.

Remember the sloppy Joe’s or those pizzas on slices of baguettes? Tsao loved them. Friends ridiculed him for it.

During his school years, Tsao discovered music. He would practice the guitar all day, neglecting school and getting into trouble. His parents gave him a choice: Go to military boarding school in the United States or go to boarding school in China.

He chose the latter, spending six years there, from age 15 to 21. If anything, his musical habit was rewarded. He toured in an underground metal band. “We did very well for ourselves,” he said.

Chef Brian Tsao in his natural habitat: jam sesh in the kitchen. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Chef Brian Tsao in his natural habitat: jam sesh in the kitchen. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

If you ask him how music influenced his cooking, he’ll say that heavy metal has allowed him to think outside the box.

And when he puts a dish together, he thinks of a song. “This is a D minor type of thing,” he might muse. Or looking at bread as the drums and the meat as a guitar solo, he might think, “How am I going to complete this song?”

On the menu you’ll find influences from his life: Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, American.

Typically Taiwanese are the Spicy Wontons ($7). All spice and flavor, with toasted sesame-infused chili oil, sweet soy, garlic, and scallion, they are a must.

Spicy Wontons. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Spicy Wontons. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

And that school food? Its stamp is all over.

It’s not just those winning bulgogi tacos ($10). There’s a sloppy Joe on there: a Kyoto Crunchy Sloppy Joe, with ground pork, sour mustard, and cheddar on a Hawaiian bun ($9).

Kyoto Sloppy Joe's. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Kyoto Sloppy Joe’s. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

“The Chicken Karaage are my homage to chicken nuggets,” he said. Leave him to fry up chicken and spice them up with a gochujang barbecue sauce ($8).

Even the pizza is inspired by school food, though one imagines it’s of a completely different ilk, with toppings such as spicy tuna, guacamole, masago, and furikake flakes ($13).

And what’s an izakaya without some to imbibe? Mira carries a wide selection of sakes. If you’re indecisive, try a flight of sakes: Samurai Sake Flight (Suijin, Tanuki, Ginban, Koshu Plum for $14) or Ginza Sake Flight (Nigori, Ohkagura, Kaori, Wakatabe) for $21.

Cocktails include the Yuzu Lychee Sangria ($12), Ume Whiskey Sour ($14), and Ginger Mojito ($12).

Final note: As for Tsao’s family, well, his success has become a point of pride. And definitely not a peep of protest after he beat Flay.

Mira Sushi & Izakaya
46 W. 22nd St. (between Fifth and Sixth avenues)

Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.

Monday–Thursday 4 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
Friday 4 p.m.–11:30 p.m.
Saturday 6 p.m.–11:30 p.m.