The evolving excellence of Ryan Wong’s Cantonese cooking at Needle

Pork belly char siu bun with grilled onion, pickled cucumber and honey glaze at Needle in Silver Lake.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

During a dim sum meal, a Cantonese friend once casually mentioned that part of the Chinese characters that spell liu sha bao — the fluffy, springy steamed buns that ooze sweet egg custard — translate as “gold quicksand.” I loved that mental image, and it comes to mind again when I carve into Ryan Wong’s liu sha bao-inspired French toast at his Silver Lake restaurant Needle.

Wong unites two slices of milk bread, encasing between them a filling of vanilla-scented custard made with salted duck egg yolks. He deep-fries the bundle and then sends it out to the dining room drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and maple syrup. Cut the square in half and the custard inside doesn’t so much gush as tremble. It tastes like a cross between liu sha bao and a hot glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut. I am generally indifferent to the notion of French toast, but this is not a creation that allows for an absence of feeling.

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Its top-of-class brilliance puts in second place Wong’s original, excellent peanut butter-stuffed version of French toast, which like much of Needle’s menu paid tribute to Hong Kong’s deeply entrenched cha chaan teng culture — cafes and diners that serve Western-influenced dishes alongside tea and often coffee. Needle opened in the fall of 2019; I remember relishing the peanut butter French toast for brunch on the restaurant’s small patio in early March 2020. A story I wrote around then discussing the local evolution of Cantonese cuisine, which also touched on Johnny Lee’s first iteration of Pearl River Deli in Far East Plaza and now-closed Chef Tony in Pasadena, was among the last pieces I turned in before the pandemic-related shutdowns.

Salted egg yolk French toast at Needle in Silver Lake.
Chef-owner Ryan Wong’s salted egg yolk French toast at Needle.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

“Evolution” is an appropriate word to describe Needle’s trajectory since then. Wong persevered through takeout survival mode for nearly a year; he cooked comforting beef curry stew and riffs on fried rice and sold kits for finishing pork char siu at home. In the spring of 2021 he began serving an incredible family-style menu — with, for example, lobster over egg noodles and lemony striped bass with garlic and dried scallops — for one table of six people four nights a week on the patio. In an attempt to create a more sustainable model, he switched for a while to reservation-only dinners that channeled siu yeh, Hong Kong’s late-night street-food snack traditions. Customers sat at patio tables or along a counter directly on the sidewalk (which was fun), eating pork meatballs or chicken thighs threaded on skewers that Wong pulled from the flames of a grill set up outside.

On Christmas morning in 2021 Wong and his wife and business partner Karen Dang welcomed their first son into the world. A planned relocation of Needle in 2022 fell through at the last minute. It gave an ironic new meaning to the restaurant’s name, a wink at the Cantonese phrase “ne du,” meaning “here.”

For now, Wong has circled Needle’s menu back to his interpretation of cha chaan teng classics. The simplicity of the short selection of 10 or so items belies the technique behind them. His skills are usually evident in the first bite. They shine through in the unusually custardy emulsion of scrambled eggs on a sandwich layered with “luncheon meat” (a frequent Hong Kong colloquialism for Spam) and an optional but elegant addition of subtly garlicky aïoli. There’s the pixilated crunch of the popcorn chicken haunted with five-spice powder and ground Sichuan peppercorns. His pork chop and char siu buns balance salt, honeyed sweetness and acidity. Noodle dishes — currently udon threaded with vegetables and chicken or tofu — absorb the kind of finessed smokiness that delivers elemental satisfaction.

Wong was raised in the San Gabriel Valley and worked at places like Trois Mec and Otium before opening his own place.


“It was great to learn the techniques, but I didn’t feel it deep down. I wanted to figure out my own voice, referring back to food memories of my mom and my family in the kitchen,” he told me in a 2020 interview. The thought behind his cooking speaks for itself, arguably with even more assurance than it did three years ago.

The ordering counter at Needle in Silver Lake.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

And to state the most painfully obvious reality: It has been a long three years for restaurant workers and owners. Among the spate of closures announced in January, it doesn’t escape me that at least four of them — Konbi, Causita, Eszett and Gemini Bakehouse — are within walking distance or a short drive from Needle. I think about this as I see Wong cooking through the glass window between the kitchen and the restaurant’s ordering counter and four-table dining room. I remember when Needle announced it was moving last summer; customers thronged the restaurant during its last week. I recall this during a very mellow lunch service on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

If you’ve never been to Needle, or you haven’t been in a while, a weekday afternoon would be an excellent time to slip away from your computer and experience its quiet, palpable pleasures. It is still very much here.

Needle: 3827 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles,

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Braised pork with rice at Luyixian
Braised pork with rice and chopped peppers is the star dish at Luyixian, a new restaurant in Alhambra that combines several regional Chinese cuisines, including Shanghai and Sichuan.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)