It’s hard to get excited about mall food.
Too many years of greasy chow mein, limp salads and those god-awful steak sandwiches have made it impossible to believe that something delicious could be hiding between a Famous Footwear and a Baby Gap.
It turns out I was just in the wrong mall. As a friend of mine who can sniff out good dumplings with the accuracy of an airport drug dog once told me, “I don’t always eat at food courts, but when I do they’re in the San Gabriel Valley.”
Which brings us to Rowland Heights: a sleepy, upper-middle-class suburb 30 minutes east of downtown L.A. that’s home to the largest concentration of Taiwanese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley and, for that matter, the U.S. Most locals would probably point you toward Hong Kong Plaza, a gaudy shopping center built during the late 90s housing boom where you’ll find everything from luxury watches to “stamina-inducing” dried sea cucumbers that fetch up to $300 per pound.
The food there is pretty fantastic and far less expensive. Along a back alleyway of dilapidated-looking stores you’ll find one of the best, or at least most potent, versions of stinky tofu in the country, roasted duck parts sold by the pound and a stellar Taiwanese breakfast roll made with sticky rice, a fried doughnut and shredded pork (it’s even better when you dip it in sweet soy milk).
Lately, however, I’ve been drawn to the less glamorous Taiwanese food court just across the street at Pacific Plaza, which is perhaps the most peculiar domestic shopping center ever. It looks like a colonial-era fortress mashed up with something from Final Fantasy, the San Gabriel Mountains rising up behind its rooftop spires. The overall effect is a poor man’s version of Neuschwanstein Castle amid the Alps.
The best-known tenants inside Pacific Plaza are Four Seasons Steak House, which specializes in Applebee’s-esque skillets of sizzling steak smothered in a gloopy pepper gravy, and Speedy Shilin, which serves a wide assortment of the street food dishes like you’d find at a Taipei night market. Between them is the newest addition to the food court, King of Mackerel and Shrimp, which has a large fish logo and some nautical netting slung around its sign. The two most popular dishes here are street food specialties from Tainan, a second-tier city on the southern tip of Taiwan known for its tourist-luring abundance of Buddhist temples and Taoist shrines.
Jacky Chen, the owner of King of Mackerel and Shrimp, is a wiry man who runs a Taiwanese sausage operation down the street. Last year Chen recruited two chefs, one who cooked fried mackerel soup in Tainan for the last 40 years and the other a “shrimp roll champion.” Marco Guo, who runs Greenshower Organic Farm in Rowland Heights, is also involved — which means the mound of steamed bok choy in your pork knuckle rice bowl is grown just a few miles away. You can even buy a fresh bunch of whatever is in season from a rack near the counter. And no, they don’t call themselves farm-to-table.
The first thing to order at King of Mackerel and Shrimp is, of course, the fried mackerel soup, which is far less startling than it sounds. Marinated and seasoned with salt and pepper, the mackerel nuggets floating in a wide bowl of rice noodles and pickled cabbage are more like popcorn chicken, like what you get at Cajun fry joints along Crenshaw Boulevard. The broth underneath is harder to pin down; there are bursts of smokiness and funk from bonito flakes and fish sauce, sour tang from black vinegar and a slight sweetness from a spoonful of sugar or two. The oddest part is the viscosity. The soup is mixed with sweet potato starch until it’s as thick as your grandmother’s beef stew.
Turns out the effect is kind of genius: The fish doesn’t sink into the soup, and thus refuses to turn into soggy lumps. You end up half-dipping the fish nuggets in between sips, the whole ensemble making more sense with each bite.
There are also shrimp rolls, which include neither mayo nor hoagie rolls but instead are long tubes of shrimp paste and fresh prawn stuffed into sausage casings and deep-fried until they puff up like eclairs. Dunked into the fruity sweet-and-sour sauce on the side, they bring back memories of those crunchy shrimp toasts they serve at take-out Chinese joints.
When I asked Chen why he decided to open a stall dedicated to two obscure dishes from Tainan, his answer was frank: “Because no one else was doing it.” That’s as valid a reason as any, I suppose. I ordered another box of shrimp rolls to-go. You don’t encounter mall food like this every day.
King of Mackerel and Shrimp, Pacific Plaza Food Court, 18457 Colima Rd., Rowland Heights, 626-616-8567