For Yoo, the menu represents “who I am as a native New Yorker,” he says. His blends and musings are a far cry from the so-called fusion cuisine of the 1980s, when ingredients from non-Western cultures began appearing in high-end restaurants across America. At the time, these items were treated as exotic items. For Yoo, they’re simply part of an urban pantry, shared by neighbors with roots across the world.
Sometimes these neighbors find an unexpected connection, like a love of condensed milk: milk boiled until it’s thick enough to cling to the spoon, with added sugar to make it last longer. American publisher, surveyor, and inventor Gail Borden Jr. patented a manufacturing and canning process in 1856, inspired by canning techniques he observed in a Shaker community in upstate New York. It proved essential for Union soldiers during the Civil War because it could be stored for months without refrigeration. Its popularity has persisted in warm climates, where, as food historian Rachel Laudan writes, “a can on the shelf is even more reliable than ‘fresh’ milk hawked from door to door to backpack donkey or in a van. .”
At the Golden Diner, the signature dessert is tres leches, a Latin American cake soaked in three kinds of milk, as its Spanish name attests: whole milk, condensed milk and its unsweetened cousin, condensed milk. Yoo first tasted the cake at an elementary school in Queens. One day, students were asked to bring a dish from their heritage. (The exact origins of Tres leches are unknown, although Mexico and Nicaragua are the main competitors. Nestlé began producing condensed milk in Latin America in the 1920s, and the method of dipping the cakes in liquid dates back to the drunken trifles of 18th-century England and even earlier, to the ancient Greeks, who offered cakes bathed in honey to their gods.) As Yoo worked on a recipe, he thought of Thai iced tea, or cha yen, a swirl of black tea and tiger orange condensed milk over ice. “Fatty, delicious, not too sweet,” he says. Could the two treats be combined?
He tried different brands of Thai tea and decided that a minimalist version, with only tea, vanilla and food coloring, would be best. It is introduced at the end, whipped in the warm mixture of three milks, which takes on this signature color. The slight bitterness of the tea controls the sweetness of the cake, so it’s just right.
Yoo pokes holes everywhere, then slowly pours in the Thai tea-milk mixture, pausing for it to be completely absorbed before pouring in more, until everything is orange. Then the waiting begins. Yoo goes so far as to leave the cake in the refrigerator for two nights, turning it in between. “So gravity can do its job,” he says. The cake is finished with whipped cream, toasted coconut flakes near gold, and lime zest with its bright spiciness. The most important thing is to keep it cool, in the refrigerator until the last moment. A shiver on the tongue, then it melts. It’s a piece of cake ? Is it ice cream? Why not the two of them?