Taiwanese Street Food With A Modern Twist Is Coming To Chinatown

The newest restaurant to call Chinatown's Far East Plaza home will be bringing something different to the community: Taiwanese street food.

Don't expect cross-cultural fusion mashups at Lao Tao Street Food—think more along the lines of modern takes on Taiwanese bites like fried baby oyster pancakes and braised pork belly over seasoned rice. The 25-seat eatery, which is slated to open in late June or early July, is located on the second floor of the plaza, next to Ramen Champ. Its culinary concept seems to fit in nicely with the mall's growing roster of heavy hitters, which include Chego, Pok Pok Phat Thai and LASA—the Filipino pop-up inside culinary incubator, Unit 120.

As for the restaurant's name, "lao tao" refers to the "foodies" in Taiwan, and the couple behind the project, chef David Wang and Ying Xie, have channeled their love for street food into their own dishes. Everything they will serve will be handmade, from their milk-steamed buns to ground peanut powder and slow-cooked, five-spice, marinated pork belly. Since Taiwanese cuisine is also influenced by the Chinese and Japanese, their street food is an amalgamation of those elements.

Some of their most exciting dishes include Lao Tao's brothless beef noodles, their take on the traditional Taiwanese beef noodle soup. Instead of including the broth, they focus on the rich, bone marrow sauce that they slow-cook in herbs and daikon for 24 hours. That dish is accompanied by bok choy, pickled vegetables and slices of green scallions.

Another unique twist is their milk-steamed bun that is stuffed with a flavorful and marinated, soft-boiled egg. Xie was inspired by the runny boiled eggs you often find in ramen and the Taiwanese five-spice-marinated eggs, and decided to combine the two. She jokingly dubs this as their "alcoholic" bao because the egg—which requires a laborious process to make—is marinated in a fermented red rice sauce, Taiwanese rice wine (michiu) and Japanese sweet rice wine (mirin). It's then topped with their peanut powder.

Lao Tao's pork wontons also come with a red chili oil that has Sichuan peppercorns infused in them, making for the mouth-numbing feeling that you'll find in mala sauce.

Lao Tao Street Food will have a handful of set items on their regular menu, with the addition of two weekly "adventurous" dishes—like stinky tofu or thousand-year-old egg—for the more daring and the ones who don't want to travel all the way to the SGV for the goodies.

The minimalistic and modern restaurant also reflects the melding of the old-school and new-school ways of serving Taiwanese cuisine. The walls are painted in muted green and white, colors that remind Xie of Taiwan's two-toned classrooms. Xie designed the logo that hangs on the building—a cartoon animal noshing on a bowl of food. And outside in the plaza, the picnic tables covered in flowery oilcloth are a perfect place for late-night dining through the summer nights. Wang and Xie plan on keeping Lao Tao open late on Fridays and Saturdays so diners can grub on snacks past dinnertime—just like with the street food culture of Taiwan.

It's been a long journey in the restaurant business for Wang, who was previously resistant to the idea of opening one of his own until this point. Wang's family owned a Chinese fast-food restaurant for over 20 years, and he spent a lot of time helping them out and was turned off by the long hours. In response, he went in the opposite direction and 9-to-5 corporate jobs after college. That didn't mean he stopped exploring the street food scene both stateside and overseas and cooking in his free time, though.

"Since I was a little kid, I've always been into street food," Wang says. "Every time I go back to my hometown, I usually like to go to street vendors instead of going to restaurants."

But he was slowly drawn back into the culinary world. Wang was galvanized by the growing food scene out in L.A. and the rebuilding of the community in Chinatown. He got really excited. "That's the main reason I quit my job," Wang says.

He felt like he now had the chance to do something different with his Taiwanese cooking, and the idea for Lao Tao grew.

Old habits die hard for his family, though. Wang's mother still prods him to serve orange chicken—her best seller at her fast-food restaurant—but he's been against it. He praises his mother for her home-style cooking, not the kind of stuff you'd find at fast-food restaurants.

"I always think, 'Do something different [because] maybe [diners] will like it,'" Wang says. "Just look at the phenomenon with pho and ramen. Ten years ago, a lot of Americans didn't really know what it was and now everybody knows."

Lao Tao Street Food is located in the Far East Plaza at 727 N. Broadway, Ste. 207, Chinatown. It's slated to open in late June or early July.