This is the story of a young couple who wanted to open a restaurant but didn't have the money. So they bought a "really old" truck, covered it with chalkboard paint, and started serving Chinese-Mexican-fusion-ish food from the side window.
Helen Li, 33, an architect, and her husband, Leo Lamprides, 25, a chef, started the Chinese Laundry food truck last October. Before the truck saga started, they had been hosting a weekly underground supper club called Dehesa Project out of their Arts District loft kitchen, which doesn't require the kind of money that a restaurant does. The two took inspiration from both their backgrounds — Lamprides is Portuguese Greek American; Li is from Beijing — to come up with a style that's uniquely their own, incorporating a pantheon of cuisines, from Hainan chicken to Uighur-style meat to risotto.
"Being an interracial couple that spends a lot of time together in the kitchen, we ended up cooking Chinese fusion meals quite often," said Li, who still works as a full-time architect in downtown L.A. "We used to joke around, calling our food 'Chinese laundry,' in light of an American man making French food at a little restaurant called the French Laundry."
Lamprides, who trained under chef David LeFevre when both were at Water Grill, and was sous-chef for Michael Hung at Faith & Flower, is helming the truck's small kitchen, making almost everything from scratch, including tortillas, fermented chile sauce, stocks, wontons and tea eggs.
So what does a Chinese-Mexican-fusion-ish menu look like? First off: Grandma's Hong Shao Rou, made from Li's grandmother's recipe for pork belly braised with ginger, star anise, scallions, shao hsing cooking wine, and finished with a sweet dark soy sauce. The meat is on the sweeter side, with a caramel-like coating that melts into the slabs of rich fat. Then there's cumin-spiced beef cheek, covered in what Lamprides calls a Western Chinese spice mix (think lots of cumin), served with celery sofrito, yogurt, scallions and cilantro. And a version of three cup chicken, made with mushrooms instead of poultry, dry-braised in a dark soy sauce with sesame oil and rice wine, and served with eggplant, basil, fried onions and yu choi, the leafy Chinese green.
These are all served on one of Lamprides' fresh tortillas, over rice, or alongside the truck's Sichuan spicy cold noodles, made with Lamprides' house-made chile spice oil, Sichuan peppercorn oil and chile paste. Like all well-balanced rice bowls, the ones from the Chinese Laundry truck include a pickle component, in the form of slivers of pickled onions, and something crunchy, in the form of crushed peanuts and fried onions. And if you, like the rest of America, need an egg on all of this, you can add a five-spice tea egg to any of the above.
"Most importantly, we want to pay homage to the vast and ancient culinary culture of China," said Li. "We feel that it is so full of wonders, secrets, traditions and wisdom that it would be disrespectful to call our food authentic Chinese. So rather, we launder Chinese cuisine with the best of our evolving understanding — within the constraints of a food truck."
One week there may be Hainan chicken tacos. Another week, Chinese risotto — Lamprides' take on Chinese congee or porridge, topped with strips of seared tri-tip steak. Or if Li's mother is available to help: homemade wontons.
Chinese Laundry operates on a pretty fixed schedule, so you can catch the truck for lunch Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Two California Plaza downtown, Thursday at the Arts District Farmers Market, at the DTLA Art Walk and at various stops in downtown Fridays and Saturdays. Whenever and wherever you find the truck, expect a line. And if you don't happen to get to the truck before noon at lunch, expect those cold spicy noodles to be long gone.