This Taiwanese Street Food Folds In Layers of History, Family And Dough
Hold up. That last one... whaaaaaat?
It's a popular snack in Taiwan, where it's known as cong zhua bing. It's also the specialty at Joy, a year-old Highland Park restaurant from Vivian Ku, owner of Silver Lake's Pine and Crane. The cute, neighborhood spot at the corner of York and Avenue 51 specializes in Taiwanese-style street food, made to suit 21st century L.A. palates and served with a dose of history.
Ku describes Taiwanese food as a blend of influences from Japan, China and groups indigenous to the nearly 14,000-square-mile island. Her family's roots reflect that mix.
"My mom's side came from the northern part of China during the civil war, so noodles and buns and potstickers, that was the stuff that my mom's side of the family all [ate]," Ku says. "My dad's side is actually Hakka and they're a pretty big subgroup in Taiwan. They're traditionally known to migrate extensively and because of that, they did a lot of curing and salting."
Taiwanese food is already a staple in Arcadia, Rowland Heights and Hacienda Heights, and it's showing up more in Irvine. But in Highland Park? Not so much.
Ku wanted to bring a slice of Taiwanese cuisine, especially its snacks and street food, to her neighborhood.
"Oftentimes at a stand in Taiwan, you wouldn't even stay and eat at the spot. They would have this little paper bag and they would put [the food] in the bag and you would walk with the bag and snack as you walk around," she says.
Cold appetizers often begin a meal in Taiwan. Joy's selection includes a few of Ku's favorites. Peanuts braised with soy sauce, rice wine and ginger. A changing selection of simple, chilled salads made with wood ear mushrooms or lotus root. Slices of scallion bread, flavored with green onions and topped with sesame seeds.
"This was the thing that my grandfather ordered by the loaf all the time and then he would just have it and snack on it through, lunch, dinner, breakfast, the next day," she says.
To go with any of these, you can sip a seasonal pineapple slushee, made with pineapple jam to intensify the flavor. For those 21 and up, there's also a boozy version, spiked with sake.
The dishes are reasonably priced. Only large items and combos cost more than $10.
"We see ourselves as part of the neighborhood so to us that means people can come in [and] feel like it's not going to hurt their wallet having a meal here," Ku says.
Joy is located in the same spot where Elsa's Bakery stood for decades, until it closed in October 2018. Ku wanted to pay homage to the neighborhood institution, whose owners are now her landlords, so she left the Elsa's Bakery sign hanging outside the restaurant. She also sells Mexican wedding cookies and donates the proceeds to local charities such as Optimist Youth Homes and AMP Youth Arts.
Main dishes at Joy include vegetarian hot and sour soup, shrimp wonton soup, dan dan noodles with jidori chicken and chiayi chicken and rice. There's also pork belly in a soft, clamshell bun. The dish's nickname, hu yao zhu, translates to "tiger bites pig" because it's shaped like a tiger's mouth chomping on slices of marinated pork belly, according to Ku. She also makes beef and vegan bean curd versions of the item.
The house specialty at Joy is the thousand layer pancake, a large circle of seemingly endless layers of paper-thin dough that has been stretched and folded using the same technique that gives croissants their flaky layers (lamination, if you watch The Great British Baking Show). One of Joy's most popular dishes, this delicious disc of dough can be loaded with egg, cheese and chili sauce to make a Taiwanese breakfast burrito.
Don't forget the slack season noodles, topped with pork, fried shallots and a single shrimp, no more, no less. The garnish has historical significance.
"When it was too dangerous to go fishing because of typhoon season, they had very little seafood on hand, so they tried to get everything they could from the seafood they had," Ku says. "It's always served with a single shrimp but you also use the shrimp shells and the shrimp head to make the stock."
Stories like these are embedded in many of Joy's dishes. Ku returns often to Taiwan, where her culinary discoveries and the memories of her family's food inspire her menus back in Los Angeles. Sharing those narratives is part of her mission.
"One of the most rewarding things about opening this restaurant, so far, has been when we're able to bring in a diverse group of people and then have them eat something very specifically Taiwanese," Ku says. "The juxtaposition makes me very excited."
Editor's Note: An earlier version referred to the opening of Joy "as part of Highland Park's relentless gentrification." We have removed that phrase. Yes, Highland Park is undergoing relentless gentrification but the previous owners of the space where Joy opened were not forced out due to gentrification.