Honest talk: On paper, Taiwanese food doesn’t sound all that appetizing. It’s droopy oyster pancakes blanketed with chile sauce, hardened sweet sausages served with thin slices of raw garlic and blocks of fried tofu that smell like dirty feet.
But if you make the effort, there will be rewards. You’ll find that oysters are lovely when wrapped in potato starch, sausage shines when paired with garlic and rice wine, and tofu that reeks of feet tastes a whole lot better than it smells.
In Taiwan, all of these dishes can be found in the alleys, served on paper plates or in cheap plastic bags and designed to be eaten on the go. Convenience and comfort are the heart and soul of Taiwanese food.
Los Angeles is lucky. The San Gabriel Valley is a Taiwanese food mecca, thanks to an immigration wave in the 1970s that drew in highly skilled Formosan immigrants. In the mid 1980s, the number of mainland Chinese immigrants surpassed the number of Taiwanese, but the Taiwanese still dominate the business sector, especially in cities like Monterey Park. Taiwanese money paved the way for the restaurants that cater to the immigrants — and these days the options are seemingly endless.
Los Angeles County is home to Taiwanese beer bars and cafes that center on beef noodle soup. Bento-like lunch trays filled with fried pork chops are ubiquitous. You’ll even find on various menus around town some regional Hakka specialties like intestines sautéed with ginger. Here is your guide for exploring Taiwanese cuisine in Los Angeles.
10. Monja Taiker
Inspired by a popular restaurant in the Monja district of Taiwan, Monja Taiker serves fast-casual Taiwanese food. The red grain pork is Monja’s main draw — a sweet barbecued pork with crisp dyed edges, sliced across the grain into thin, manageable pieces. It’s the Taiwanese rendition of charsiu, but drier and sweeter than Cantonese or Japanese varieties. The pork is commonly ordered over rice, but dry noodles are another option. 8150 Garvey Ave., Rosemead; (626) 307-7330.
9. Golden Leaf
This small café with a small menu opened in December of last year, and it’s the perfect place to go if you want an introduction to Taiwanese food without being overwhelmed by hundreds of dish options. We’ll simplify it even more for you: Oyster pancakes and beef noodle soup is all you need here. The oyster pancake is not too gloopy, and the oysters are plump. Pair with a side of stinky tofu, because a primer to Taiwanese food is incomplete without it. 717 W Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel; (626) 289-8377.
8. Pine & Crane
A solid Taiwanese restaurant in Silver Lake, Pine & Crane specializes in noodle soups. Beef with noodles in broth is the main draw, and the fact that the restaurant sources its vegetables from their family farm makes it all the more trendy. If beef isn’t your thing, they do dan dan noodles, noodles with zha jiang (fermented bean paste) and wontons. There’s also a lovely rotation of appetizers including beef rolls and sweet potato fries. 1521 Griffith Park Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 668-1128.
7. Tofu King
Come here for two things and two things only: the fatty pork over rice and the stinky tofu. The tofu is served in thick chunks and scored slightly so that the aroma wafts out. It’s a lovely dish (if you like stinky tofu, that is) served with pickled cabbage, and it pairs well with the pork over rice. In all honesty, that dish is mostly fat over rice. The pork fat that carries the flavor and allows the juices to seep deep into the rice. Just like in Taiwan. 18414 Colima Road, Rowland Heights; (626) 964-6250.
6. Bull Demon King
Beef noodle soup is to Taiwan what ramen is to Japan. Beef shanks are braised for hours, then served in an earthy broth that takes a grand 12 hours to perfect. A handful of pickled mustard greens are dropped in for contrast. While beef noodle soup can be found in most Taiwanese eateries in town, BDK’s rendition is darker and sultrier than most. There’s a lot of spice involved. Fun challenge: Finish a bowl of their gigantic spicy beef noodle soup within 30 minutes and your lunch is free. 5953 Temple City Blvd., Temple City; (626) 286-4788.
5. Jurassic Tea Spot
Tea Spot is ideal for lunch; the menu is focused on set meals, with complimentary drink and soup. There are noodle soups, a pork chop over rice, Taiwanese steak with spaghetti and night market fare like Taiwanese tempura and pork blood cake. The signature dish is the lu rou fan, braised pork over rice with a bit of bamboo and a tea egg. Wash it all down with an order of green tea, sweetened with sugar and served with ice. There will be lines, so plan ahead. 15309 Gale Ave., City of Industry; (626) 330-3586.
This isn't an Indian restaurant at all, though it is Native American-themed: There's a Native American bust on the rear wall, along with pictures of the scantily clad women with feathers in their hair. Decor aside, the food is great — and is designed to pair with beer, preferably from Taiwan. Solid selections include the three-flavor chicken, fried mushrooms, any of the kabobs and the grilled squid. Basically, anything deep-fried or grilled will do you well. Some things remain consistent between cultures. 633 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 287-0688.
3. BeBe Fusion
BeBe Fusion is not at all fusion. It’s countryside Taiwanese food with a strong Hakka influence — the type of dishes you’d find inside a rural restaurant in the mountains. The menu is chock full of offal and seafood braised with dark soy sauce and served in clay pots.We recommend the three-cup squid. Family-style dishes are what this place is good for, so expect platters of food including stinky tofu cut into French fry-like strips and flavored with basil and onion. Some say BeBe has most acrid stinky tofu in town — a true compliment. 201 E. Bay State St.; (626) 284-1288.
The Taiwanese sausage here is so popular that the restaurant ships it to those unlucky folks who don’t live in Los Angeles. The pork is air-dried, flavored with garlic and rice wine, encased and then sliced into bite-sized pieces. It’s much sweeter than Western renditions, and SinBala serves its sausage with julienned basil, passionfruit or even chocolate or jam. As for the rest of the menu, it centers in part on Taiwanese bento lunches. The sausage or pork chop over rice are the classics, the type of meal you’d find in Taiwan at a train station or off a roadside stand. It’s served with the simplest accouterments: peas and carrots or napa cabbage, a tea egg and a bit of pickled mustard greens. 651 W. Duarte Road, Arcadia; (626) 446-0886.
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1. Café Fusion
Café Fusion is the place to go if you have Taiwanese family in town you want to impress. It's on the pricey side and is the highest-end Taiwanese restaurant in town. The name is deceiving; it’s by no means fusion at all. Café Fusion is full-on Taiwanese. The key is knowing what to order. The star dish is the $100 lobster salad. It’s drizzled with kewpie mayo and paired with mango and apple slices (or whatever fruit is in season). You should also order the oyster vermicelli . There aren’t many places that do it around here, and when they do, it’s often way too dry. Café Fusion's rendition is perfectly moist, and the oysters are spot-on. 510 E. Live Oak Ave., Arcadia; (626) 447-6488.