When it comes to countries that are good at fried foods, Taiwan is rarely brought up as a worthy contender. Japanese cuisine has karaage, while Korea’s sweet and crunchy drumsticks have inspired entire restaurants in and of themselves. And. of course, there’s good old-fashioned American fried chicken covered in buttermilk and dredged in flour.
But food from the island of Taiwan is chock-full of fried delights, and chef David Kuo is adamant about bringing that fact to the attention of Angelenos. Kuo was the owner of the former Status Kuo in Mar Vista, which has been recently rebranded and refurbished as Little Fatty.
“[Status Kuo] was a half-Asian place. I was always half in and half out, and I got to a certain point where I just wanted to cook the food that I wanted and see how people receive that,” he says.
The food that he wants, specifically, is centered more on Taiwan-specific comfort goods such as popcorn chicken and deep-fried pork chop. While born and raised in the States, Kuo is of Taiwanese descent and has designed Little Fatty to be a reflection of his heritage.
On the island of Taiwan, popcorn chicken typically is a night-market staple. It is bite-sized pieces of marinated chicken coated in sweet potato flour, deep-fried and then tossed with basil leaves for an extra layer of flavor. It’s usually served in a plastic bag at the markets, but at Little Fatty, they’re kind enough to dole it out on a plate.
Pork chops in Taiwan, on the other hand, are a regular feature of the local biandangs – a Mandarin term specific to Taiwan for bento boxes. Biandangs are lunch sets that began popping up as a staple of Taiwan’s railway system when the island was occupied by the Japanese. Traditionally, the lunch sets were served in thin, rectangular wooden boxes, layered with various proteins and sautéed vegetables on top of rice. Train employees would hand them out of the window of the compartments. Today, they’re served in plastic containers all over the island, and the variations are endless.
The pork chop, which is one of the more common protein choices in the lunch sets, was brought over to Taiwan in the late 1950s and early ’60s by a wave of elite mainland Chinese immigrants. It’s a derivative of Shanghai-style pork chop and has been a staple of Taiwan’s biandang scene since. At Little Fatty, the pork is served à la carte and is made from pigs from Peads and Barnetts, a farm in north San Diego County. It’s deep-fried with sweet potato flour and buttermilk, which renders it significantly crispier than the versions in Taiwan. That’s done on purpose; after all, Little Fatty’s menu is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of most Americans. Kuo is not a purist about serving food that's exclusively from Taiwan. The rest of the menu is a hodgepodge of other Asian comfort foods, such as beef noodle soup with pickled mustard greens and pork belly that melts at a fork’s touch.
Places like Little Fatty are rare. While the Greater Los Angeles area has some of the best Taiwanese food in the nation, most of that talent resides in the San Gabriel Valley. The cuisine is still relatively unknown outside of the Chinese and Taiwanese enclaves of Los Angeles County, and Little Fatty is one of the few Taiwan-centric restaurants to have emerged in recent years in an attempt to bridge that gap.
With that in mind, Kuo is planning for his restaurant to be a beacon of Taiwanese delights and says he hopes to roll out unconventional dishes such as oyster pancakes for the weekends. He is also slated to create a Taiwanese-style brunch series.
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“We’ll have dou hua (tofu pudding) and dou jiang (soy milk) and you tiaos (deep-fried crullers),” he says. “It’ll be like dim sum. But Taiwanese.”
3809 Grand View Blvd., Mar Vista; (310) 574-7610, littlefattyla.com.