Eat It!: Rise of the Phoenix and Dragon

By on March 21, 2018

Four Seasons alumni are cooking up Asian comfort food in Whole Grocer

Order the Taiwanese eight-spice beef noodle soup with a poached egg and Sichuan chili oil. (Helen Goelet)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When deciding on a date for the opening of their new Chinese eatery, Eric and Zarina Sakai consulted with Eric’s uncle who follows the Chinese lunar calendar. “He was like, ‘Duh, Chinese New Year. It’s a day of luck,’” Zarina recalled.

The couple dutifully obliged. The Phoenix and the Dragon opened on February 16 and within the first week, diners were forming a regular lunch line at its humble counter inside Jackson Whole Grocer. Specials such as Mongolian lamb rib soup were selling out in the first hour and a half.

It all started at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City, where Eric and Zarina met. Together, they went on to work in various award-winning restaurants including The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Rubicon in San Francisco.

In 2010 they found themselves in Jackson working at the Four Seasons before shipping off again, this time to Seattle to open a restaurant of their own.

The restaurant compelled them to new levels of creativity. “We were designing menus for people as they came in,” Eric said, “it could be an eight-course menu, or it could be 18.”

It was at their 12-table, modern French tasting-menu restaurant that Eric was named Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Chef of the Northwest and Pacific.

But the fast-pace and long hours were all-consuming. Soon, it became too much and the Sakais closed up shop and headed for the beach. After a brief stint living in San Diego and missing their former life and friends in Jackson, they returned last September. “We came back with no plan,” Zarina said, “we wanted to take it easy.”

Jackson Hole had other plans for them.

The couple worked a Chinese “Around the World” dinner at Streetfood at the Stagecoach with their old Four Seasons pals/Streetfood owners Marcos Hernandez and Amelia Hatchard. One of the guests happened to be owner of Jackson Whole Grocer Jeff Rice. He was so impressed with the food, he offered them a spot at his store.

The couple may have traded fine dining for a cove in a grocery store, but they employ the same dedication they did at their French restaurant.

“We make everything on the one burner we have,” Zarina said, “every broth and sauce takes the normal six to eight hours of investment. What you see when you walk up to the window is what we have; there’s no secret prep space.”

Indeed, it’s on their one-range stove where the magic of their Chinese menu happens. Inspired by regional Chinese cuisine, the Sakais mission is to serve a more accurate representation of Chinese food.

“I look at China like I would Italy,” Eric said, “there are so many different regions and variances, we wanted to take people away from Chinese-American cuisine and give them the real deal.”

The chicken and shrimp ‘lion’s head’ meatball noodle soup is delicious comfort in a bowl. (Helen Goelet)

Certain dishes come more readily to Eric, whose mother is from Hong Kong. When his mother was a child, she and Eric’s grandparents moved to Hawaii and opened a small Chinese restaurant where Eric first learned to cook. Today, Eric’s mother tastes his food and says she is reminded of home, Zarina said.

Also driving the flavors is Eric’s own palate. “I love vinegars, acidity. There are so many different kinds that add a pop to dishes.” That “pop” means each dish has a dynamic flavor profile.

Try the chicken and shrimp “lion’s head” meatball noodle soup. It’s light and full of clean textures and tastes. The moist meatballs are made with equal parts ground chicken and chopped shrimp.

The No. 2, a cold noodle salad with fresh shredded vegetables and a housemade peanut sauce, is refreshing and light. It also happens to be available in the JWG’s prepackaged to-go section.

Everything on the menu warrants a sample, so if you feel indecisive, let them choose for you. (But be sure to grab their Sichuan chili sauce.) “We’ve already got regulars,” Eric said. “It’s great, they come to the window and say, ‘You pick for me today.’”

The dining culture in Jackson is indeed shifting towards more adventurous flavors. And regulars will be happy to know the couple has big plans once they perfect their operation at JWG. “A brick and mortar is our hope for the future,” Zarina said.

 

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