It's been two years since Eddie Huang relocated from New York to L.A. It wasn't necessarily an easy move, prompted more by logistics having to do with his television career than by any real desire to live here. But eventually Huang decided to bring the chef side of him to L.A. as well, and earlier this month he opened an outpost of his New York City restaurant Baohaus in Chinatown's Far East Plaza, in the spot recently vacated by his friend Andy Ricker.
I caught up with Huang a few days after the opening of Baohaus to talk about why he brought the concept west, and about his ever-evolving relationship with the city he now calls home.
Besha Rodell: How are you holding up?
Eddie Huang: I’m good, I’ve been super busy. It’s hectic, and even though 2016 has been a rough year with a lot of challenges, at least me and my team, with Baohaus and the show, it’s been a very productive year.
B.R. For people who have been to the New York City location and know it, is the new Chinatown store a total replication of that?
EH: It’s exactly the same. There’s nothing that’s changed; we didn’t try to reinvent the wheel or do anything different. It works in New York, so we just wanna bring that flavor and that energy over here.
BR: Did you look at L.A. and think, “Something is missing from this city,” a gap that Baohaus might fill? Or was it just a case of expanding to where you’re living now?
EH: I’ve been in L.A. for two years. And as soon as I came out here I wanted to do a Baohaus, but I really wanted to get to know the city before I pulled a trigger on anything. The first place I went was actually Far East Plaza. I was there with Andy [Ricker] when Andy went to get his spot [for Pok Pok Phat Thai]. And I thought it was a cool place, but they didn’t have anything available on the first floor. Andy took the one first-floor spot that was available. From there I just kind of kept my eye on it.
I became friends with Jim Starr, who owns Golden State and Cofax and the Bludso’s in Fairfax, started playing basketball with him, and he wanted to open a Baohaus. We started to think about a bigger Baohaus and what we would do, and get creative with it. Jim came to New York, he came to see the operation, and we thought about it for over a year. And at the end of it, we both were like: It’s kind of perfect as is. There’s no need to change the menu, there’s no need to get cheffy with it, that’s never what I’ve wanted to do anyway. The thing I’ve done is, I’ve told the story of Taiwanese Chinese Americans — and I’ve represented streetwear culture and hip-hop music — through the restaurant with a $4 sandwich. That was always the idea.
One of the most influential things to me has always been In-N-Out burger. I read the book, I read all the history, about how they kind of represented hot-rod culture and surfers. And they never really changed the menu. They’ve got the secret stuff, but mainly it’s the staples. I really think that Baohaus in a lot of ways, if we could open these in neighborhoods and communities that we really vibe with and identify with, we could be a restaurant over the decades that’s planted a flag and anchored itself with a particular subculture and the immigrant story. That’s really what we stand for. It’s not about making new dishes or jumping on trends — we really are dedicated to this story we’re telling.
BR: Right. Well, I was going to ask you if you have plans to expand more. Are you gonna go for world domination? Would you like to end up with Baohaus everywhere?
EH: Not like, everywhere everywhere. There are certain neighborhoods. … I don’t think I’m going to be, like, Shake Shack. To be honest, I think some of the locations Shake Shack has picked are somewhat haphazard. Then again, they’re a much more vanilla brand, they’re not necessarily connected to one community or story.
I really try to represent ideas or culture that are a bit underrepresented in food. So some places that I’m interested in are, like, the Hongdae in Seoul, South Korea, I like what’s going on there. I really would like to open one in Taipei. And then, on the Westside of L.A. there seems to be a lack of representation.
One of the places I patronize a lot in L.A. is the CineFile video store. I go there all the time, it’s probably the first place I go when I get home. So I would like to open one kind of near there. For me, going around the world, I see neighborhoods, I see communities where it’s like: I think there’s some energy here, I think there’s something interesting going on, and I think Baohaus could be a part of it. That’s what I’m looking for.
BR: Because people equate you so much with the streetwear thing, it almost would make sense for you to open on Fairfax.
It’s overrepresented there. And it becomes a bit of an echo chamber. I thought that Chinatown was really interesting because the Chinatown here is very old. The Chinatown in New York is a lot younger, there’s a lot of young people who live there. The one here, it’s a lot of old businesses. It’s kind of deserted. But young people are starting to go in there, you’re getting them connected from downtown.
Roy [Choi] is the pioneer. Roy came opening night, Roy is absolutely the pioneer in Far East Plaza, he saw this over three years ago before anyone else did. And I think Roy has to get a lot of credit. Roy is one of those guys who, he gets a lot of attention in L.A. but I don’t think he could possibly get enough, because he really, like myself in New York, he’s committed to community. And every move that he makes, you can see a lot of thought and soul go into what Roy does, and it’s not just about the food.
I genuinely feel that restaurants have the responsibility of being cultural distribution centers. I’ve studied this a lot and this sounds super nerdy, but after World War I, women went to work and everybody, for the most part, became two-income households. And before women went to work, women were charged with preserving food culture, preserving foodways. Women did the cooking and they took care of the house, but since women went to work, that duty has not been redistributed fairly. Women cannot be expected, as a group, to singularly carry that burden. Society has to pick up the responsibility of preserving the beauty and culture, especially with food. So that’s why I've been very outspoken about chefs and what it is they’re promoting: self-promoting, trend-chasing. Restaurants should be museums, restaurants should distribute culture. I think a few chefs do understand that role, and I think a lot of them forget.
BR: It’s a hard role to take on, I think. And it’s something that’s fairly new for a lot of chefs, especially ones who have had the privilege of not having to think about these things their whole life. I see a lot of people struggling with it. It’s easy to do a charity dinner — it’s much harder to create culture and create community.
EH: It’s much harder, number one, to create a menu in a restaurant that maintains the thread between you as a chef and your dish, and all the cooks that came before you that have maybe cooked this dish, or contributed to this dish. Anytime you cook you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s a 5,000-year-old art that has been practiced around the world, and I think that there’s not enough credit being paid to the history and traditions of things, and communicating that information through the restaurant and the dinner. We shout out a lot of farms, we shout out a lot of, this is the new thing that’s going on, and this is what’s on the toast point. But I would love actual information.
That’s one thing Andy [Ricker]’s done very well. He’s been an ambassador for Thai food. I think it’s been tough for him in L.A., but at least in New York, where there was not a critical mass of Thai people, he was an extremely important ambassador.
BR: I want to ask you about your evolving relationship with and opinion of L.A. When I first met you, you were pretty wary of L.A. People say it takes two years to understand this city. I know you’re out of town a lot, but that’s how long you’ve been living here. Where are you at with it now?
EH: Yeah, you know, you took me to one of my first really good meals in L.A. It was you and this guy Andrew Weiss. The same week you took me to Night + Market, he took me to Sapp Coffee Shop. And those meals were the beginning for me. I really got into Thai Town, I got into Little Tokyo, I got into Koreatown, I have worked my way through every damn thing. Highland Park. I was at Coni’Seafood for lunch. I was at Hai Di Lao for hot pot last night. I have my spots.
In terms of community and the way people hang out, in terms of nightlife, that’s the part I don’t think I’m ever going to like. The nightlife in L.A. is very weird. You make friends, and you say to them, “Hey, let’s meet at this place in two weeks, at, like, 10 p.m.” You know, it’s not natural. For me, in New York, you just run into people on the street. It’s great! It’s very challenging here, it's so easy to be isolated. People say, “It’s because you live in Malibu.” No, not really. I stay with my other friends. This isn’t a place where you walk outside of your house and run into people. You’ve got to get in the car. So, whether I get in the car in Malibu or in West Hollywood, to me it’s not that I have to spend time in a car — it’s that I even have to be in a car. I don’t like that there isn’t a public transportation system that gets you across from east to west. I really miss walking culture. But in terms of the food, I think it’s a much richer, more complex food city than New York. And I prefer the restaurants.
If I had to choose a food scene, I would take L.A.’s. Not in the way reservations work, not the way you make plans with friends, not the way you get to the restaurant. But once you are physically in the restaurant eating the food, the food definitely wins. Especially the ethnic food. You can get things here. I’ve gotten better Korean barbecue here than I did in Seoul. I’ve gotten hot pot here on the level that I got in Chengdu. You can’t say that in New York. You absolutely can’t.
I miss the Jewish food, I miss the Italian food and I miss the Caribbean food. Those are the three things you’re really missing in L.A. But outside of those, I think the food culture has been extremely surprising. That is my favorite thing about L.A. I think my favorite thing is Koreatown! Koreatown is an absolute gem, you’ll never run out of things to do there, you’ll never run out of things to eat there.
I remember Tony [Bourdain] a long time ago on No Reservations said, “China is a place I could go and never run out of shows. I could do, like, 10 years of shows there.” I think he said that on his Shanghai episode a long time ago. That’s how I feel about Koreatown in L.A. I will never run out of restaurants, I will never be bored. I eat there at least three times a week.
And, you know what else? The produce is much better in L.A. Even just making our chili oils and our hot sauces, they’re brighter and more vibrant than they are in New York. So from day one, the food is better in the L.A. Baohaus than it is in the New York one.
You know what else I like? L.A. customers are much more discerning, and they’re much more informed about the food. The L.A. customer knows his Thai food, knows his Japanese food. You’re exposed to much better sushi here than you are in New York, so in terms of the specific dishes and the quality of food, you have such a critical mass of Asian people who have spread this knowledge, that the diner in L.A. — you can’t fool them. I love that. It’s also a testament to America, immigration and multiculturalism. Everyone here has, like, three to five Asian friends. They have Mexican friends. Everyone knows the way things are supposed to be, and ethnic communities here have enlisted their white allies so that everyone continues to project this information, so it’s not just Mexicans who will speak out about a good or bad taco, it’s not just Asians who will speak out about a good boat noodle. They’ve taught their neighbors, they’ve taught their friends and family. It’s an entire city that’s a gatekeeper for restaurants. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.
You don’t have that in New York. We’re working on it! But this city, for food, is the most interesting place in America right now.
Baohaus L.A.: 727 N. Broadway, #130, Chinatown. baohausnyc.com