Fatty Crab

To understand the spirit of the Fatty Crew—the restaurant group led by chef Zak Pelaccio—you don’t really need to set foot in- side either Fatty Crab, the Southeast Asian farm-to-Chinatown- plastic-plate joints they run on both the West Village and the Upper West Side. You only have to lay eyes on the logo, a splashy psychedelic deal that channels the emblems of ’70s TV shows like Starsky and Hutch, complete with Pelaccio and his business partner, Rick Camac, in back-to-back profile Charlie’s Angels–style. “I fucking love it,” laughs the 37-year-old Pelaccio, whose most recent Fatty venture is a street cart daring to serve chicharrones with chile powder and Thai iced coffee at a terrace in Central Park.

Beyond that Fatty Pullcart, the Crew now operates a few Manhattan Fatty kiosks and Fatty Snacks; opened a third Fatty Crab in the Virgin Islands this winter; and runs the year-old Fatty ’Cue in Brooklyn, which will spawn a ’Cue two on Carmine Street later this year. But the very first Fatty was the tiny place Pelaccio opened in an old laundromat on Hudson Street in 2005. It was where the chef began focusing his now-signature Malaysian flavors—those sambal aioli–kissed sliders and pickled-watermelon- and-crispy-pork salads—for a modern New York City menu. And ever since, the city’s hippest crowds have continued to pack the barely lit, red and black space that’s about the size of dive bar,which it can often resemble. Fatty Crab may have oak-aged cocktails (they sit in little wooden barrels above the bar) but they share space with Pabst tallboys at 2:00 a.m., when the soundtrack is just as likely to be the entire second side of Led Zeppelin II as the Sex Pistols, or heck, maybe even the deeply funky theme song from Starsky and Hutch. Funnily enough, for those that might have seen Pelaccio’s ample form, fuzzy beard and shaggy mane, the bar where those two hung out was owned by a dude named Huggy Bear.

Pelaccio is indeed a master of funk—though in this case the word refers not to the heavy synth of a ’70s soul soundtrack but rather to the funky tang of fermenting fish flesh. His bass beat is the salty- spicy-sweet-sour flavors that are all but unknown on finer city menus, a blend of intense chiles, citrus and spice paste and, yes, partially putrid seafood that Pelaccio fell for during a year cooking in Malaysia.

If other chefs have some obsession sparked by a stage in a Parisian kitchen or making gnocchi with an Umbrian nonna, Pelaccio’s passion is traced to a city seldom cited by aspiring chefs: Kuala Lumpur. He fell hard for the place on a post-college trip, and after stints as a buyer for Drew Nieporent’s Myriad Restaurant Group and writing scripts for the Food Network, he went back in 1998 to spend a year cooking and eating, scoring a job as the only white guy working in the kitchen of a traditional high-end restaurant called Seri Malayu. Now more than a decade later—he’s taken multiple trips back since for research and additional inspiration— Pelaccio is practically a Malaysian missionary, bringing the gospel of shrimp paste and palm sugar to Western shores in the form of sultry smoked crab noodle soup or those sliders of ground beef and house-made lardo tricked out with shallots, galangal root, coriander seed and a chile-paste mayo. Those won hearts at Fatty Crab, and now the barbecued versions at Fatty ’Cue (coriander-spiked bacon streaked with creamy curry custard; red curry-rubbed duck paired with pickled daikon) are creating converts, too.

’Cue may be the first Fatty in Brooklyn, but students of city food history know that borough was also the very first place the chef hung his shingle, back in 2003 when he opened Chickenbone Café on the still very scrubby stretch of South Williamsburg—when the nearby glassy condo towers with ferry service to Midtown were just abandoned trash-strewn lots. The location wasn’t the only way Pelaccio was ahead of the times. The food was hyper-globetrotter, but locally sourced, a gutsy pursuit of meaty deliciousness well before Tony Bourdain’s No Reservations hit the air, dude food before Guy Fieri. Eight years later, those early menus were a crystal ball into today’s top-10 trends: pork confit with sauce gribiche in a ciabatta roll, Long Island salads and foraged ramp soups, Thai curry stew and “peas and bacon”—pork belly over local pea shoots and fava beans—even bánh mìs, Asian noodles and little pork buns, reimagined with Greenmarket ingredients, before Momofuku made its name on such similar mouthfuls. Pelaccio developed relationships with local farms who are now on the city’s best menus, like Violet Hill and Samascott Orchards, buying Trinidadian chiles and kielbasa from immigrant markets, a new combination that prompted local food sections citywide to gush about a then-new aesthetic that is now de rigueur.

And it wasn’t just diners paying attention to those reviews. In 2004 a former tech honcho, East Village bar owner and would-be restaurateur named Rick Camac was in the process of opening a place in a townhouse at 5 Ninth Avenue in the Meatpacking District. But he still needed a chef, and one who could handle the tiny basement kitchen that didn’t have much room for cooking equipment. “There was a story in Time Out,” recalls Camac, “about this guy who’s doing this cool stuff on hot plates and induction burn- ers, and it was Zak. I said, ‘that’s the guy we need.’” As it turned out, the guy Camac was saying this to was a wine rep, one that had Zak’s number in his cell phone.

Their first partnership was called 5 Ninth, and Pelaccio dabbled in adding both Southeast Asian and global influences to a fine dining menu, earning stellar reviews. So a year later the pair started on a second restaurant, a much smaller, more laid-back space nearby on Hudson that was supposed to be a 5 Ninth–lite, says Camac, a spot “to grab a sandwich, have a coffee.”

That was the indeed the plan until a mere three weeks before the place was to open, when Pelaccio came to Camac with a totally different idea: “I think we should make it a Malaysian bistro,” Pelaccio told Camac. “I said, ‘What the hell’s a Malaysian bistro?’” says Camac. Amazingly, Camac let him try it.

“It just seemed to make sense,” says Pelaccio of the last-second switcheroo, though he admits that he also just hated the way the space had been decorated: “It looked like a cheap pizza place, real lowbrow, with this cheesy orange terra cotta.”

So with the help of $3,500 on his credit card, Pelaccio reworked not just the menu but the plaster job, weathering the ceil- ing fans with steel wool and ordering chairs from China that have all since broken. “We took some red paint and smooshed it all over the walls,” recalls Camac with a laugh, “and we had Fatty Crab.”

Did they ever. Six years ago, Fatty’s flavors were things most Manhattan eaters had never tasted, and they fell hard for its menu. Pelaccio’s mastery of Southeast Asiany snacks, those sambal-mayo slathered beef and pork burgers, so juicy and spicy on their com- fortingly familiar soft tiny buns. Those quirky tea sandwiches— crusts removed, as per British custom back in Malaysia, stuffed with peekytoe crab and sweet corn or sardines and scallions. There were those deep, lusty bowls of laksa noodles, soaked in spicy broth layered with fermented fish and chile and spice. Those squat cubes of fat-edged pork belly and pink and green pickled water- melon, all topped with a tangle of shredded scallion and a scatter of sesame seeds. There was a heady short rib rendang, a Pelaccio riff on a classic Malaysian dish with its magic carpet of spices, and a version of nasi lemak, a semi-composed plate of coconut rice paired with salty peanuts, pickled vegetables and herbs done Fatty style with braised pastured chickens and a silky slow-cooked egg.

There are wedges of fresh mango dusted with chile-sugar salt, an order of “Jalan Alor” chicken wings spiked with a thick and sweet Indo–soy sauce glaze and a kiss of cumin and fennel, and a deep bowl of tubby rice noodles topped with sweet Chinese sausage and silky shiitakes. And then there are the fatty crabs, for which the place is named. Served whole in a deep bowl of incredible broth, pounded willy-nilly with a mallet while music blares and some bartender mixes some pseudo–Southeast Asian seafaring concoction called Seep the Leg. (It’s Japanese whiskey, toasted cardamom, lime juice, hot sauce and a splash of chocolate bitters.)

That all caught on with the dining masses in a way 5 Ninth never could. “I remember at the time,” remembers Camac, “I would say, ‘I have this great place 5 Ninth in the meatpacking in this lovely townhouse and this place Fatty Crab.’ And people would go, ‘Fatty Crab! Yeah of course!’ …And I’m in San Francisco having this conversation.”

When Crab number two opened in early 2009, they became the Fatty Crew. The uptown Crab offers a kids’ menu, lunch service and a much bigger kitchen—the kitchen of Fatty Crab number one could practically fit in its bathroom—it’s where Pelaccio and his chef de cuisine Corwin Kave can play around with newer creations like a platter of thin slices of buttery pork belly plated with a few crispy fried shrimps, sweet chile sauce and Vietnamese mint; the Fatty dog, a pastured, heritage-breed pork sausage dressed with mayo and XO sauce and garnished with pickled chiles, radishes and garlic; and half-ears of bicolor corn, rubbed with a spicy schmear of peach butter, their husks neatly tied into a triangular little handle.

That simple side of corn, by the way, is one of many signs that Pelaccio’s commitments to good ingredients run deep. While no one would ever mistake the man for an East Coast Alice Waters, he helped found the New York chapter of Slow Food USA with the organization’s national president Patrick Martins. When Martins went on to found Heritage Foods USA, which sources superior foods from small farms across the country (including the pork shoulder Fatty Crab turns into those links), Patrick counted Pelaccio—then chefing at 5 Ninth—among his very first customers. “Zak has always been a visionary and continues to keep small farms in business,” says Martins, who recalls that Pelaccio was the first to really buy secondary “lesser” cuts like belly and ribs, which in 2005 few were buying in bulk.

At the same time—and this was half a decade ago, remember—Pelaccio had already bought his own parcel of land upstate to custom-grow a few crops, including Indonesian long peppers and obscure herbs not found at Union Square. When a massive kitchen up there is finished, says Pelaccio, who once taught his son’s preschool class how to simmer maple sap into syrup, he hopes to turn it into a team training and brainstorming ground: “A bare- foot center of the universe,” he says dreamily, “where I could stand around in shorts and bare feet and pick herbs from my garden.”

But while the field is now wonderfully crowded with chefs who take their sourcing as seriously, Pelaccio is unique in what he does with all that butternut squash and pork belly. Unlike at just about every locavore temple in town, to dine here is to sit at tables more Formica than farmhouse, and to taste not bucolic Americana but the mojo of Malaysia.

Like Pelaccio himself, his cooks are flavor perfectionists disguised in slacker suits, and his eating establishments are places where pursuit of great flavor has nothing to do with fancy, where enlightened ingredients appear without a modicum of moraliz- ing; places where the PBR pickleback chaser isn’t from a jar of kosher dills but made scratch from fresh gingerroot, places that serve Cherry Coke in a cocktail, but only after giving the syrup a ride in Fatty ’Cue Brooklyn’s backyard smoker. A place done top to bottom in trashy reds and beaten-up blacks, like some kind of retro karaoke lounge in Kuala Lumpur, the city where Pelaccio first learned his Malaysian hooks.

Here in the States, Pelaccio is surely the biggest booster of that region’s culinary techniques. (Literally: He helped the Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation promote the country’s cooking in 2010.) But he would be the first to dismiss his menus as anything approaching authentic.

“The dirty little secret of it is that it’s not Malaysian at all,” he says of his cooking at Fatty Crab. “The biggest misconception from day one is that it is Malaysian. Sure, it’s more Malaysian than Italian. But you’ll never find our nasi lemak on a Malaysian menu, or our rendang on a Malaysian menu.” Malaysian cooks would never braise their chicken the way he learned to, he says, or slow cook an egg to four-star silkiness. (They also wouldn’t have his wine list: Despite Pelaccio’s love for local food, he’s an unabashed fan of European bottles, his quirky list curated from years spent making wine reps taste from the jar of chile-spiked sambal he kept at arm’s length so they could find him bottles “that go with spice.”)

Instead, what Pelaccio took from his time in the country was a way to make food taste, well, electrifying: “an incredible entic- ing of your taste buds,” he says, still smitten more than a decade later, “so stimulating and enthralling.” To take an ordinary slider and add a smear of chile paste and a splash of citrus; to pair every Grandma’s brisket with sour-sweet-heat chile jam and the bracing tang of fish sauce; to pair charred pork belly with lime juice and pickled watermelon.

Or maybe you’d even call it Fatty. “We didn’t want to call it Malaysian or Thai,” recalls Pelaccio of the idea—spearheaded by Camac—to apply the name to other restaurant ideas. “We used Fatty as an adjective. A descriptor to modify whatever it was we were cooking: It was spicy, it was acidic and funky and bright.”

It’s also genius. What Pelaccio does isn’t reproduction but re- appropriation, which, when you think about it, requires far more creativity than straight imitation.

That took time to translate: Pelaccio headed for the French Culinary Institute when he came back to Manhattan, then jobs in white tablecloth shops like Daniel and Napa Valley’s the French Laundry. They left him disenchanted, not surprising for a guy who claims he’s “not capable of cookie cutter: I’m too sort of scatter- brained and turned on by what I’m doing.”

He can’t be bothered with the everyday details of restaurant running: “That’s the kind of stuff I don’t pay attention to,” he half- jokes when asked how many members are part of the Crew. “It’s not that interesting. I pay attention to where we’re buying it and how it’s being served. I pay attention to my own thoughts. I pay attention to my navel.”

Pelaccio, it should be noted, hasn’t just chased flavor around the globe. He’s also one of the city’s über-chowhounds, his cooking style just as informed by years of seeking out obscure eating experiences right here in the boroughs. Not for nothing does Robert Sietsema, the Counter Culture columnist for the Village Voice, issue a rare disclaimer when talking about Fatty restaurants, calling Pelaccio a “friend and frequent dining companion.” Pelaccio wrote several of the much-loved Asian chapters in the 2003 Slow Food’s Guide to New York City.

Some of his melting-pot projects have met with tepid response: There was that giant place called Chop Suey in Times Square, and another attempt at NYC–global fusion called Borough Food & Drink. And selling $18 “snacks” of chile-smeared ribs from a T- shirted team hasn’t always been easy either. Brooklyn’s Fatty ’Cue was, after all, included in the Village Voice’s Top 10 “overrated” restaurants last year, slammed for “cynically small” portions and “cynically high” prices. That prompted Pelaccio to pen a lengthy response that his $38 per person average dinner tab was actually pretty good when you consider the care of his sourcing was on par with the city’s best restaurants and that he was creating a meal made up almost entirely of extremely pricey proteins.

Still, Pelaccio is equally astounded at how much more open his customers have become since he first started cooking. “In 2002 and 2003 it was hard to sell whole fish on the bone.” Now at Fatty ’Cue, once you eat your whole smoked mackerel you’re advised to have the kitchen deep-fry the bones. And while he pooh-poohs the idea he’s responsible for any such shift, or the recent full-on obsession with chile and spice and noodles and sliders and Southeast Asian sandwiches, he is without question one of the boundary breakers who’s helped us get here, one of a handful of cooks who dispensed with stuffiness and stole the world’s best culinary tricks while breaking all of its culinary rules—long before it was what the public wanted.

Still, even Pelaccio himself can tire of all things fatty. When- ever he’s recognized in a restaurant, the kitchen often sends out the place’s porkiest plates. “It would be great,” he says with a sigh, “if somebody just brought me a fucking salad.”

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell