Savory scents of Taiwanese beefy soups, braised pork belly and popcorn chicken can be found dancing to the sweet sounds of obscure, Tarantino-esque pop songs in and outside of Lao Tao — Chinatown’s latest addition to the ever growing Far East Plaza. The natural Los Angeles sunlight basks diners through the tall glass storefront where an interior employs a pale olive green borrowed from old Taiwanese shops and mid-20th century grade schools. Named after Taotie, the insatiable son of a dragon that became so hungry he swallowed his own body, Lao Tao is the reimagined childhood memories of Taiwanese street grub crafted by aficionado and chef David Wang. Lao Tao’s headliner, and Taiwan’s national dish, Beef Ban Mien is a rich and spicy soup filled with flat noodle and tender portions of five-spice beef shank soaked in an eight-hour spicy bone marrow broth. Those who prefer an extra kick are recommended to order it with the house-made spicy and numbing mala sauce made of Sichuan peppercorn and chili pepper.
Wang worked five tireless years on the recipe, traveling back to Taiwan and consulting with mentor and fellow chef Juili Wang, to fine tune the sauces, beef tenderization and bringing a balance with the other flavors of Taiwanese Napa cabbage, pickled vegetables, diced tomatoes and green scallions.
Another Lao Tao gem is the century egg tofu salad. A decorative dish featuring silky tofu slices, green scallions, pork floss and a cured black duck egg. The egg might initially be met with timidity due to its blackened color and its opinionated, yet deceiving fragrance, but it rewards with a unique creamy texture and heightened and saltier egg flavor. The pork floss, or rousong, is a savory garnish that feels like cotton candy in your mouth and packs a strong, rich and salty but not overpowering.
Born in China and raised on Taiwanese food culture, Wang’s affinity for street market comfort food drove him to take up the culinary arts. The decision to open a restaurant in Chinatown was also inspired by an eagerness to keep Chinese culture alive and vibrant in a time where the children of traditional restaurant owners have opted out of carrying on their family businesses.
Lao Tao sets itself apart from other Asian cuisine heavy hitters like Ramen Champ and Chego that are breathing new life into the neighborhood by delivering an authentic Taiwanese food experience.
The attention to detail brings satisfaction to each sense — from the simple decor with grade school illustrations and wood planks with spices inscribed in Chinese all the way to the presentation of their ginger limeade where tiny slices of ginger and chia seeds float within and provide a visually playful appeal that compliments its refreshing taste.
So whether you’re a hungry, yet humble human or the reincarnation of Taotie himself, Lao Tao is guaranteed to satisfy the food monster within.
Written by Brian Chernick
Photographed by Stephen LaMarche