It's a great time to eat at Café Fusion. May officially kicks off dragons' whiskers salad season at the eight-year-old Taiwanese restaurant, and it also marks the seasonal arrival of locally grown baby bamboo shoots, yam leaves and other produce you rarely see elsewhere.
The restaurant attained cult status among vegetable-loving Taiwanese way before locavore and farm-to-table became overused menu buzzwords and now its phones are just getting slammed. “Our regulars call in to find out when we'll start serving the dragons' whiskers dish, it's a big favorite” says owner Arthur Chen.
The salad's main ingredient, young chayote squash vine leaves — along with the delicate tendrils that give the dish its name — start appearing irregularly toward the end of April. Chef Randy Li dresses them in a light vinaigrette of sesame oil touched with cilantro and a faint zap of hot chile.
Like dry-farmed summer peaches or dead ripe tomatoes, the optimal harvest time for the infant vines is fleeting. “We get them from Yao Cheng farm, a certified farmers market grower near Camarillo,” Chen says.
Chen's various pre-restaurateur careers have given him an octopus-like reach into the world of niche Asian farmers. “My first job in L.A. was a logistics manager at the Los Angeles Central Produce Market (meaning setting up delivery channels for growers) and before that I owned Asian supermarkets in the Dallas area after Texas A&M business graduate school.”
Among his favorite vegetable suppliers is an aquaculture farm. “We get organic yam leaves from a Riverside County-based company that's the oldest and one of the largest tilapia producers in California. They can't use any fertilizer on the land around the tanks because it would kill the fish.”
Chen not only loves serving food, eating food and talking about food, he loves sharing every aspect of what he's learned about it over the years. His short food segments produced for ETTV, offer insights into restaurants plus informative tours to local farming operations and wholesale produce and seafood markets.
Don't worry when you don't see the seasonal vegetables on the English menu (many are written in Chinese on wall signs). Most guests put themselves in Chen's hands, simply asking him what he recommends (the English menu also lacks pork kidneys in wine, duck tongues and other organ meats that are felt some might find unsavory).
When beautifully-cooked greens arrive at your table, or when you dig into baby spring bamboo shoots, (available now through October), you'll see why Chen has such a loyal following. The silky smooth shoots are added last to a hearty pork-rib soup so they barely cook. They're also served lightly steamed as an appetizer alongside house-made mayonnaise for dipping. “You can get these canned from Taiwan but our customers prefer the local fresh ones,” says Chen.
Throughout the year the restaurant offers such novelties as black cod with tree seeds (manjak berries), a unique cultivar of sweet-tasting Taiwanese broccoli and, in typical Taiwanese fashion, lots of dishes with generous amounts of fresh Asian basil stirred in at the end of the cooking — the three cup chicken and crispy fried oysters with basil, for example. No matter when you go to Café Fusion, you're bound to expand your Asian vegetable horizons.