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Meet the Family Behind the Noodle Pop-Up That Always Sells Out

8:20 AM PST on February 26, 2018

Julie “Mama Fong.” Photos courtesy of Alexander Gao

Is there a better food to accompany a night of drinking than expertly charred noodles?

The loyal customers who show up in droves to WOON’s noodle pop-up time after time for the last four years don’t think so. At their last event on February 1st at ETA, it wasn’t even two hours into the service that was supposed to run from 6 p.m. to “late” when the bar owner stepped out to inform the line of about half a dozen people lined up just to get inside. “We’re on our last orders, so no guarantee that you’ll get food. Sorry!”

This scenario is common for the Fong family, no matter how many covers they prep for.

All photos courtesy of Alexander Gao

“It’s kind of crazy and sometimes it is embarrassing,” Keegan Fong humbly admits when asked about the hype. “I really just want to share my mom’s food with people.” The 30-year-old who was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley has a full-time job at Vissla and his overly chill tone, even while cooking for over a hundred people, matches the chill vibes of his surfwear day job. This is their first pop-up of the year and they only did a couple in the last few months of 2017, but they’ve been doing pop-ups — on and off — since 2014.

Keegan Fong

In the parking lot behind the tiny cocktail bar, Keegan, his mother Julie, his sister Andrea, his brother-in-law Philipp, and his business partner Michael Chen are all wearing aprons. They have formed a makeshift kitchen complete with two high-powered burners torching the surface of the woks commandeered by both Keegan and Julie. “We get these noodles from our noodle guy deep in the San Gabriel Valley,” Keegan jokes as he sends the noodles, vegetables, and sliced bits of tender flank beef up for some amplitude with a flick of the wrist. Some eaters like to romanticize that smoky flavor and taste from high heat cooking in a wok as wok hay, which can be translated as “the breath of the wok.” Regardless, it’s hard to not go crazy for the savory, burnt smell emanating throughout the entire alley.

The noodles themselves are fat, almost udon-like but a just a little flatter, and they are chewier than what you’re probably used to at your favorite Chinese restaurant. While their source is a Fong family secret, Keegan informs that they are yellow because of an alkaline solution added in the water used to make the dough, not because it is made with eggs. The preparation is simple and inspired by Julie’s Shanghainese-Cantonese roots: just shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, her housemade soy-based sauce, and beef if you want it. She was born in Shanghai and was raised in Hong Kong. She immigrated to the U.S. the 70s and always cooked these simple noodles and many other homemade foods for Keegan and his family.

Line for WOON in front of ETA

It’s the kind of simplicity that Keegan missed when he went away to college. “These ingredients are so unique to what I grew up with and I had no clue that I wouldn’t be able to access them when I went away to college,” Keegan shares. His longing while away eventually turned into noodle-based celebrations when he returned home with friends. “She loves to cook and assimilated fast. She kills it with American food, too, things like steak and pasta, but I always asked for those noodles — it's our comfort food.”

Art by Niky Roehreke

Keegan and his sister eventually brought more and more friends to their family dinners and eventually those friends started inviting themselves and requesting Julie’s food more frequently, and that’s when Keegan and his mother deemed that the concept was needed in the community. “We would always be high or drunk and eat all her food,” Keegan admits, “and everyone loves my mom.”

The Fong family have dreams of becoming an official brick and mortar one day and expanding their menu with more of Julie’s greatest hits, but for now, they are content with the occasional dinner rush that their pop-ups always bring.

“My mom is probably the coolest mom there is and I’m thankful for that,” Keegan adds.  

WOON’s next pop-up will be on March 2nd, 2018 at Resident. Follow them on Instagram for more information.

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