Done right, there are few things as restorative as a bowl of noodle soup.
Lao Tao, a 25-seat shop on the second floor of Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, has an excellent version. But its bowl of Tawainese beef ban mien actually started out as a dry noodle dish before morphing into its current noodle soup iteration.
David Wang, who opened Lao Tao in 2016, first served the dish as a heady combination of flat wheat noodles, beef shank and tendon, cabbage and pickled mustard greens. He later added a rich bone marrow broth and, encouraged by friends, put the reworked dish on the menu, where it has become a staple.
Wang traces his ban mien recipe to a particular visit to Taiwan shortly before the restaurant opened, when he was blown away by versions of the dish that were nothing like those he’d had in America.
“The flavor was drastically different,” Wang said. “I scratched my recipe and redid everything.”
He downplayed soy sauce, and took tomatoes and daikon out of the braise. Then he turned his attention to the broth and spices, roasting the bones for the stock and adding galangal to the mix.
“I refuse to calculate the cost,” he said, after describing the three stocks — bone marrow, chicken and roasted beef spiked with red jalapenos, chiles and Sichuan peppercorns — as well as the beef and dry guan miao noodles he sources from a Rosemead company. “I don’t want to know.”
Wang, whose family moved to Los Angeles from Southern China when he was a kid, grew up working in his parents’ fast-food restaurants and didn’t initially want to cook for a living. Instead he got an economics degree from UCLA and worked in the corporate world for seven years before the urge to cook finally overcame him.
He filtered some of his initial recipes through his family — his parents won a Mercedes in a Ranch 99 raffle, then sold it and used the money to open their own restaurant — and then picked up more from research and trips to Taiwan.
He’d fallen in love with Taiwanese food early on, he said. He also credits trips to Pine & Crane as an early catalyst. The popular Silver Lake restaurant “really inspired me; I didn’t know Americans liked Taiwanese food.”
The beef ban mien, Wang said, “is more a passion than anything else. Maybe one day I can open a dedicated noodle soup shop so I can finally put it in its proper place.”