For Yoo, the menu represents “who I am as a native New Yorker,” he says. His mixings and musings are far from the so-called fusion cuisine of the 1980s, when ingredients from non-Western cultures started popping up at high-end restaurants across America. Back then, those elements were treated as exotica. To Yoo, they’re simply part of a city pantry, shared by neighbors with roots across the world.
Sometimes those neighbors find an unexpected connection, like a love of condensed milk: milk boiled down until it’s thick enough to cling to the spoon, with sugar added to make it last longer. The American publisher, land surveyor and inventor Gail Borden Jr. patented a process for making and canning it in 1856, inspired by preservation techniques he observed at a Shaker community in upstate New York. It proved essential for Union soldiers during the Civil War, because it could be kept for months without refrigeration. Its popularity has persisted in warm climates, where, as the food historian Rachel Laudan has written, “a can on the shelf is still more reliable than the ‘fresh’ milk hawked door to door on the back of a donkey or in a pickup truck.”
At Golden Diner, the marquee dessert is tres leches, a Latin American cake soaked in three kinds of milk, as the Spanish name attests: whole milk, condensed milk and its unsweetened cousin, evaporated milk. Yoo first tasted the cake in elementary school in Queens, on a day students were asked to bring in a dish from their heritage. (Tres leches’s exact origins are unknown, though Mexico and Nicaragua are the main contenders. Nestlé started producing condensed milk in Latin America in the 1920s, and the method of soaking cake in liquid goes back to the tipsy trifles of 18th-century England and even earlier, to the ancient Greeks, who offered honey-bathed cakes to their gods.) As Yoo worked on a recipe, he thought of Thai iced tea, or cha yen, a tiger-orange swirl of black tea and 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 just tea, vanilla and food coloring, would be best. It’s introduced at the end, whisked into the warm mixture of three milks, which takes on that signature hue. The faint bitterness of the tea checks the sweetness of the cake, so it’s just enough.
Yoo pokes holes all over, then pours the Thai tea-milk mixture slowly, pausing for it to be fully absorbed before pouring more, until everything is orange. Then the waiting begins. Yoo goes so far as to leave the cake in the refrigerator for two nights, flipping it in between. “So gravity can do its work,” he says. The cake is finished with whipped cream, coconut flakes toasted near gold and lime zest with its bright sting. Most important is to keep it cold, in the refrigerator until the last moment. A chill on the tongue, then it melts. Is it cake? Is it ice cream? Why not both?