It would have been easy for him to go another route. He was flooded with offers. Everyone, not least his own customers, thought he was nuts. “Why don’t you just open up a bigger Noodle Bar?” was a constant refrain. “Yeah, we could have done it,” says Chang. “And sure, we want to make a lot of money, too. But we wanted to take a chance and experiment. We wanted to do it because we thought it would work.”
The seeds of Chang’s fast-food fixation might have been planted in Tokyo, but they were nourished by another major influence closer to home. “I tried to get a job at Chipotle when I got back from Japan, but they wouldn’t hire me,” he says. “They knew what I was up to.” It’s easy to see the parallels between Ssäm Bar and the Tex-Mex monolith that’s invaded Manhattan. “A lot of this is premised on what Chipotle’s done: Make affordable, good food, and do it with integrity.”
According to Chang, “There’s a reason people do fast food.” It’s easy to replicate, for one. Chang was wary, too, of cannibalizing Noodle Bar’s business. “Not to say that we want to raise the average check,” he says, but if that happened, “we’d have Ssäm Bar there as a cheaper alternative.” And he was looking for something highly profitable to finance his chefs’ collective. Chang knew no investor would swallow that kind of risk. By putting Noodle Bar up against Ssäm Bar for a loan and establishing two lines of credit, Chang staked everything on his Asian burrito.
So far, despite the undeniably delicious food, the gamble hasn’t paid off. In its first few weeks, Ssäm Bar sat empty most hours, its glass façade putting Chang’s miscalculations on painfully public display. Chang was hoping to sell 100 ssäms at lunch but was lucky to move that many all day.
Right away, Chang started making adjustments. He added options like brisket and tofu to the ssäm menu, and, in a decidedly un-Changian concession, he even let people customize their own. Business picked up little by little, but it was still nowhere near what he’d projected.
With daytime lagging, a kitchen of restless cooks, and $1 million in loans to pay off, Chang let the rest of the team persuade him to launch the late-night menu in late September, months earlier than scheduled. From Wednesday through Sunday, 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., the ssäm station shut down and the ranges were fired up. Chilmark oysters were shucked, Finchville Farms country ham was sliced, and cooks served up such offbeat, elegant fare as fish-sauce-dressed fried cauliflower with chilies and mint, and a banh-mi-by-any-other-name three-terrine sandwich. To drink, there was sake, beer, and sparkling wine. With the lights dimmed and the conversation buzzing, Ssäm Bar assumed a different personality, low-key but lively, with a steady flow of local chefs, hungry revelers, and foodies making pilgrimages from distant Zip Codes.
Soon, late night was outpacing daytime, but Noodle Bar was still subsidizing both operations. That wasn’t the only problem. The restaurant’s dual-concept schizophrenia was confusing, to say the least. “People came in at night and wanted a ssäm,” says Chang. “Or they’d come in during the day and want a banh mi.”
The first of this year, Chang did something he’s unaccustomed to. He officially gave in. The burrito-bar hours were curtailed to 11 to 6, and the late-night hours, complete with table service, were expanded to 6 to 2 a.m., seven nights a week.
Chang obsesses over his missteps. “The location was a miscalculation,” he says. “If we opened in midtown, we’d do really well.” It might have been an error, too, he now says, to create such a sleek stage for what really amounted to a self-service cafeteria. But mostly he believes that “people really wanted Noodle Bar. I can’t even stress that enough, how pissed off people were that we didn’t open up a bigger Noodle Bar.” What they tend to forget, though, is that Noodle Bar wasn’t an instant smash either. “It’s a restaurant; it’s not a movie that doesn’t change,” he says.
In the coming weeks, Chang plans to add daytime delivery at Ssäm, something Mario Batali has been encouraging him to do from the start. Chang is also making self-imposed management changes. Even though Ssäm Bar started out as a team effort, he says, “I’m such a control freak, my hands were all over it. I’m trying to let go.”
And what if none of it works? There are always other options. “People take a big shit on Vegas, but to a restaurant owner or chef, it’s so fucking hard to open a restaurant in New York City,” he says. “You’ve got to fight the goddamn community board to get a liquor license. You’ve got to go through hoops to get building permits. And here you have people in Las Vegas who want you there, who want to help you. Yeah, it’s a fucking armpit. But at the same time, it’s a legitimate opportunity to do something, make some more money, and to do it without all the crazy headaches. I wouldn’t say no now. I’ve always said if we were going to do another Noodle Bar, it would probably be in a place like Vegas.”
If he gets the right offer, he just might take it, he says. “As long as it’s on our terms.”