Street food seems to be a road every food lover wants to travel on nowadays. Los Angeles provides enough options in this casual category to cover a six-lane highway, and we just can’t seem to get enough of it. Now piling on the very large plate occupied by the likes of Korean tacos, bacon-wrapped hot dogs and slurpy khao soi is Taiwanese street food.
After a smattering of popups and an appearance at the Lucky Rice food festival, Lao Tao Taiwanese Street Food made its debut as a storefront in early October at the food bazaar that is Chinatown’s Far East Plaza. David Wang is the chef and co-owner along with his partner, Ying Xie. Their simply adorned, 25-seat restaurant features, on its plate-glass window, a cartoony dragon-beast called Taotie, who sits with his back and butt crack facing the viewer. He’s a mythical Chinese creature whose appetite was so insatiable, he devoured everything in sight including, one day, himself. The name Lao Tao is derived from this character, and is also slang in Taiwan for foodie.
And for these foodies, there are plenty of dishes that will appeal to adventurous types. However, Wang and Xie were careful to design a menu that is also accessible to diners who have no experience with Taiwanese food. The Big Bowls are more or less the gateway items for trying out these flavors. Niu rou mian, or beef noodle soup, rules Taiwan like no other national food, and the version at Lao Tao is a merging of two noodle bowl styles — the aforementioned favorite and ban mian. Ban mian incorporates a broader noodle, which helps the beefy, eight-hour spicy bone broth stick to the springy strands with that just-right Chinese bite called “Q.” The niu rou mian part is the pleasingly tender beef shank that’s pan-seared with rock sugar and black bean sauce before the braise, locking in some pretty great Taiwanese taste profiles. Each component of the bowl, including fried pickled mustard greens and tomato chunks, is neatly compartmentalized. The bowl is soupless in the summer, but Wang promises a more traditional beef noodle soup when winter comes.
Part of the appeal of Taiwanese food, at least for natives and the converted, is texture, some of which can be challenging to the uninitiated. Traditionally, oh ah jian, aka oyster omelet, involves such a texture — let’s say it can be on the viscous side of the mouth-feel map. Wang and Xie agreed to walk a fine line for this very popular Taiwanese fare, which is eaten at every night market on the island: Lao Tao carefully griddles its baby oyster omelet so the outer rim is firm, while a small portion of the center shimmers and shimmies with the runny underdoneness of egg and potato starch slurry. Wang prides himself on using strictly Taiwanese bok choy for the omelet, which is difficult to consistently source even at 99 Ranch Market.
Wang loves cooking, but not so much the restaurant business. He is an escapee from his family’s Chinese fast-food joint — the ubiquitous kind that gives you three choices, packing them all in a Styrofoam to-go container. He helped his parents run one for years, taking days off only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. His frustration stemmed from knowing that his mom “would make orange chicken and beef broccoli for the customers but something else at home.” Wang said, “I wanted her to put her home-cooked food on the menu and not the stuff every other Chinese restaurant makes.” After he left the family business, he vowed never to return the restaurant world, but as the story so often goes, he was pulled back in by his passion for food. But this time he vowed to only make food that quickened his pulse.
Two more pulse-quickening picks on Lao Tao’s menu board are century egg tofu salad and “chicken neck” roll. A handful of ingredients make up the salad: century egg, silken tofu, pork floss, baby kale and a chili oil sauce. The preserved egg’s gelatin slickness and pungent creamy yolk mix with the rough wool-like texture of savory pork floss (dried pork fiber). Wang's attention to detail demands that the oolong tea–infused eggs he serves must be cracked precisely the right way so as to form fissures on the shell, allowing the boiled egg to stain with a brown cobweb pattern. This is definitely not your church picnic egg salad; once tossed, the chili oil pulls everything together for a one-of-a-kind experience.
The occasional elderly Taiwanese lady may bust Wang’s chops about the authenticity of Lao Tao’s “chicken neck” roll, but it’s still a worthwhile appetizer. The colorful name refers to its appearance. A sheath of leathery tofu skin is rolled with a pork and fish paste mixture, carrots, celery, onion and water chestnuts, then fried. Dip into the thick sweet chili sauce to complete your bite of this crispy sausage-y wrap.
By the way, Lao Tao bao are coming soon, and not only because Baohaus’ L.A. branch is a couple of weeks from opening in the same plaza, but because Taotie the foodie beast demands it. And what Taotie wants, Taotie usually gets.
727 N. Broadway, Unit 207, Chinatown; (213) 372-5318, laotaostreetfood.com.
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