Los Angeles Chefs Are Rewriting the Playbook for Chinese Food
When Shirley Chung says she specializes in “progressive Chinese-American cuisine,” what she means is that she’s cooking without limitations. What she means is that she’s being an L.A. chef.
“There’s no word for 'kale' in Chinese,” Chung says. “When you try to describe kale in China, it translates into something like ‘blue-color leafy-green vegetable.’”
It turns out, though, that this leafy-green superfood is an excellent way to brighten up and add depth to Chinese food. So Chung is serving a resplendent and ultra-comforting fried rice with kale, smoked trout roe, and toasted sesame seeds at Abernethy’s. Inspired by legendary Sichuan chef Yu Bo, Chung is making hot-and-sour sablefish with preserved kale sprouts and silken tofu. This sablefish dish is a delicate riff on the fish with pickled vegetables you’ll find at Sichuan restaurants that typically serve cheap tilapia.
Chung is part of a movement: L.A. chefs are rewriting the playbook for Chinese food in delicious and dramatic ways. As Leo Lee, the chef at downtown Cantonese-barbecue restaurant RiceBox, says, a big part of modernizing Chinese food is about using of-the-moment ingredients. So Lee and his wife, Lydia, serve Duroc pork porchetta. They make Impossible Foods potstickers that are filled out beautifully with vermicelli, wood-ear mushrooms, and Napa cabbage. They recently added shrimp-and-taro dumplings to their menu, and they’ve used their recent back-to-back appearances at big L.A. food events to try out new dishes they might start serving at RiceBox soon. At the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival, RiceBox updated the radish cakes served at dim-sum parlors and made dazzling daikon “egg nests” with XO corn relish. At The Taste (a food festival presented by the Los Angeles Times), the Lees served char siu-style beef.
At Mala Town on Sawtelle Boulevard, boundary-smashing chef Tiantian Qiu and Kai Lin are serving individual-sized hot pots that go well beyond the Sichuan flavors they’re known for at Hip Hot in Monterey Park. They do, of course, have a Sichuan mala hot pot with sliced beef and meatballs at Mala Town, but that hot pot comes with an ingredient you don’t usually see at Sichuan restaurants: kale. Qiu says she first started using kale as a garnish, and then she realized how well the greens (which are firmer, more flavorful, and more versatile than Napa cabbage) work in a mouth-numbing hot pot. (“Don’t drink the spicy broth,” Qiu says with a smile when she sees us get a little frisky with the chile-laden hot pot.)
Other delightful spicy options at Mala Town include an appetizer of sliced chicken in a bright red oil, but equally impressive are the milder dishes. A friend who’s usually averse to hot pot dined with us at Mala Town and greatly enjoyed a Hainan coconut-chicken broth. That came with kale, too.
At Steep L.A., a new tea house in Chinatown, co-owner Samuel Wang is nodding to his Taiwanese heritage by serving braised pork over rice with pickled cucumber and pickled radish.
“Braised pork is super Taiwanese,” he says. “I grew up with it. Every street vendor has it.”
But Wang wanted to update the dish and make it pop by elegantly presenting it in a bowl with “pickles that are a little more acidic.” Meanwhile, Steep L.A. co-owner Lydia Lin is channeling her Cantonese upbringing while making seasonal dishes like sesame-chicken cold noodles. She wants to develop a different tea-infused dish every season, and she’s started with a soul-stirring 13-spice beef shank that features black tea. The umami-rich mushrooms in this rice bowl are as satisfying as every wonderful bite of beef. Lin says she wants to be innovative and experiment with different flavors, so she’s planning to weave Japanese influences into a drunken-chicken rice bowl with dashi and green-tea broth that she’ll put on the menu when the season changes.
Steep L.A. self-identifies as a “modern tea house,” so I ask what “modern” means in this case.
“I would say new and good-looking and sexy and nontraditional,” says Wang, who’s got a display of California-made leather accessories from his own company, The Goods L.A., at the tea house.
Wang and Lin are offering traditional tea ceremonies at Steep L.A., but they don’t want guests to be intimidated by tea culture. There’s no elderly bearded tea master preaching at you here. Steep L.A. gives customers a loose set of parameters about how to enjoy tea, and you’re free to adjust the amount of water, temperature, and steeping time for your black, green, oolong, or pu-erh tea as you see fit.
“It’s just an experience we picked up while we were in China,” says Wang, who also serves iced tea and cold-brew tea. “We realized that tea is very democratic. Everyone has their own way of doing it.”
Self-expression can be a glorious thing. Like everyone else mentioned above, Chung is an independent operator, who runs dumpling paradise Ms. Chi Cafe in Culver City and has a Ms. Chi stand at The Fields L.A. But Abernethy’s gives the Top Chef star a glitzy platform to advance the conversation about Chinese food in L.A.
Abernethy’s is part of a $41 million Music Center transformation that also includes The Mullin Wine Bar and an outpost of coffee powerhouse Go Get Em Tiger. Abernethy’s will have rotating chefs, with a new menu every three months, and the goal is to have a culinary roster that’s reflective of the diversity and uninhibited creativity of L.A.’s dining scene. Other chefs who will be cooking at Abernethy’s include Jason Fullilove (who’s known for his modern soul food at Barbara Jean and is also the new executive chef at The Magic Castle), Ryan Costanza (who’s deftly updating Jewish comfort food at Freedman’s), and Noree Pla and Fern Kaewtathip (the duo who serve uncompromising Thai food at Luv2Eat Thai Bistro and Noree Thai).
The Beijing-born Chung is joyfully showcasing her heritage by serving Beijing lamb belly at Abernethy’s. She’s making kung pao tofu, crispy on the outside and pillowy on the inside, that tastes like a better version of Panda Express. And she’s offering a Chinese-Italian mashup that she created alongside fellow Top Chef alum Silvia Barban: cacio e pepe made with Northern China-style noodles, tofu-and-pecorino cream, and Sichuan peppercorns. Is this dish more Chinese or more Italian? That might depend on your point of view, but does the answer even matter? The creaminess in the cacio e pepe is a perfect balance for the mala of the peppercorns. This is L.A. food in 2019.