Sweet dreams yield Konnyaku
November 23, 2007
Susan Wang keeps count of four big dreams for her life.
One, she has achieved ” to live in a house. “Because where I come from, everyone lives in a small apartment,” said the 41-year-old Wang, a native of Taiwan who lives, in a house, in Basalt, of which she has a half-ownership.
A second dream is “that my parents are really healthy. But that one I can’t control,” noted Wang. A third dream she won’t reveal, at least not for public consumption.
The fourth dream would seem nearly as beyond her grasp as her wishes for her parents’ continued good health. Wang, who has worked in virtually every front-of-house position (waitress, hostess, bus-girl, floor manager ” everything but bartender) in virtually every Chinese restaurant in recent Aspen history (Arthur’s, Szechuan Garden, Eastern Winds, Little Ollie’s), wanted to own an Aspen restaurant of her own. But with sky-high rents, a shortage of capital and a notoriously tricky market, it looked as if that one would have to remain in the dream stage, even for someone with a wealth of experience.
But Wang has an exuberant personality and an uncommon warmth. (When I met with her recently, our second encounter, I offered my hand. She didn’t let it go till the conversation ended some five minutes later.) Wang is also the picture of the hardworking, optimistic immigrant. During those years of working in Aspen restaurants, she also worked at several Aspen banks, making her way from teller to assistant branch manager. And she did private catering, cooking the food and serving it. For some 19 years, her daily routine included five or six hours of sleep.
Wang is also organized and determined. In the course of her dual careers, she compiled hundreds of business cards, which she keeps meticulously and close at hand in a black binder. When the opportunity arose to open a restaurant, she was able to line up a number of backers, picked from that binder.
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“I’m lucky,” said Wang. “I have a whole bunch of friends to help me. I’m so lucky. Tons and tons of friends. These people are really important to me. Some of them just give me energy. These people all give me ideas.”
And Wang was flexible enough to alter her dream somewhat. Shifting her sights from Aspen to Carbondale made the restaurant more financially attainable, and she was persuaded that a downvalley location fit better with her personality. Wang makes friends easily, and she wanted a place that could attract repeat business from her friends, rather than relying on more of a tourist crowd.
Wang’s second dream came true last month, with the opening of Konnyaku in a Carbondale strip-mall space along Highway 133, formerly occupied by the Latin restaurant Zocalito. The spacious spot features a horseshoe bar in the middle, mellow aqua tones, and Wang’s own art collection ” all pieces by friends of hers ” on the walls.
One fantasy that didn’t make it into Wang’s top four, but one that nevertheless features prominently in her life, is dessert. Talk with her long enough and almost inevitably her fondness for dessert comes up. “I love the sweets really much,” she said in her chirping, accented English. The dessert menu at Konnyaku features such treats as tiramisu, and, Wang offers with a smile, two kinds of New York-style cheesecake ” hardly what one expects in an Asian restaurant.
It is this sweet tooth that has dictated what kind of restaurant Wang opened. The desserts aside, Konnyaku emphasizes healthful eating. The restaurant bills itself as creating Pacific-Asian cuisine, and the influences come from Korea, Japan and Hawaii as much as from China. Wang is determined to separate her food from the standard image of the American Chinese restaurant: “In America, a lot of people think of Chinese food as junk, cheap stuff,” she said.
Konnyaku’s cuisine begins with konnyaku. As the entire first page of the menu explains, konnyaku is an Asian sweet potato, from the same family of yellow root vegetables as the yam. Glucomannan, taken from the plant, is a high-fiber ingredient with no fat, and low in sugar and starch. It has been used in the treatment of high cholesterol, constipation, obesity and diabetes. It may be healthful, but it is not necessarily the most convenient food source. The menu details the eight-step process that has been employed for 1,500 years to process konnyaku into a usable ingredient. Tommy Hwang, the restaurant’s chef, follows this method, which takes three days of working with the raw potatoes. (Another ingredient that recurs on the menu is Goji berries, a small, red Himalayan berry that is boosted on the Konnyaku menu as “the most nutritionally complete food on the planet.”)
Konnyaku ” the vegetable, that is ” is also diverse. It is everywhere on the Konnyaku menu as sashimi, as the centerpiece of two different salads, in two different chicken dishes (a curry, and with vegetables) and in savory noodle bowls featuring noodles made of konnyaku. It also makes appearances in prawn, fish and vegetarian entrees. On its own, it is not the most flavor-packed of ingredients, but, as a foundation for other flavors to attach themselves to, it is preferable in taste and texture to tofu ” and likely healthier.
In any event, Hwang, who became acquainted with Wang when they worked together at the defunct Szechuan Gardens, finds no difficulty in making a happy marriage between flavor and health. His Tommy’s black pepper steak cube ” at $19.95, the most expensive item on the menu ” is moist and tender, mixing the steak with nearly raw slices of sweet Maui onions, a delicacy. Hwang shows a way with spice in the glaze garlic chicken, which includes slices of konnyaku. The menu features the Hawaiian fish dish poke, but, to ensure freshness, only a limited amount is available each day. Two additional items demand attention: an appetizer of crispy sesame rolls, with sesame seeds coating the outside; and the noodle bowl, with shrimp and vegetables. (A lunch menu features Oahu basil chicken, a short-rib plate and Udon noodle soup, among other specials.)
“Where we come from, in Taiwan, the ladies always like to think about being skinny, keeping thin,” said Wang (pronounced “wong”). “And I like to eat. So I wanted food that I wouldn’t have to worry about eating too much, about getting fat.
“That’s why the healthy thing. I have to have the balance,” she said, referring to her love of desserts.
Wang moved to Aspen in 1987, attracted by the snow. “The first five years I saw snow drop, I’d get so excited, watching the snow fall from the sky,” she said. “I had colds all the time; I’d get so excited and forget to put on a jacket.” Paradoxically, Wang has skied just once.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, Wang picked up on a concern with health similar to what she grew up around. “I see, basically, all the people want to talk about healthy,” she said. Hwang had been trained to cook with the same focus in a three-year stint cooking for Taiwan’s first family. “He mentioned the konnyaku: ‘Do you know this product? It’s really healthy and tasteful stuff.’ I went to the Google and saw all the doctors’ endorsements.”
Konnyaku is used in another restaurant that Hwang owns in Orange County, Calif. But it was Wang’s idea to go full-bore with konnyaku, and she said it was an idea she dreamed up. She claims it is the first restaurant in the U.S. to feature the ingredient so extensively.
“All my energy was, I want it different,” she said. “I told Tommy, cook whatever you want. Just make it nice, colorful, tasty. And healthy.”
She and Hwang seem to be hitting those marks. Wang reports a flow of repeat customers. And Michelle Abruzzo, who has been waiting tables at Konnyaku from day one, says that while she has found herself having to explain the cuisine to diners, they warm to it quickly.
“After they eat it, they always love it,” she said. “I’ve never had a single complaint about the food.”
Just as certain to draw comments as the food is the owner-hostess-founder. Customarily dressed in heels and a business suit, Wang is likely to pull up a seat to chat with her dining friends. With her, it doesn’t feel intrusive.
“When I’m here, I don’t feel like I’m working,” she said. “It’s like I’m coming to see my friends. At home, doing the accounting on the computer ” that’s the job. I feel like I’m coming to a party every day here.”