As a kid growing up in Upland, Jonathen Liu spent weekends fighting carsickness on trips to the San Gabriel Valley, where his Taiwanese parents drove every Sunday to buy groceries.
“Born and raised in America, I was like, ‘I just want cheeseburgers,’ ” he said. “I felt really disconnected to the Taiwanese culture that I grew up with.”
Liu began cooking when he was a teen, taking on a number of kitchen and front-of-house restaurant jobs. He moved to New York in 2013, where he sang in a punk rock band. The young chef also worked at the Manhattan bistro Estela and began to apply the techniques he was learning there to the food he grew up with. A trip to Taiwan in 2016 cemented his interest.
“I visited my dad there for a month and explored all the street food stands and places I could find, including an incredible Taiwanese/Japanese omakase restaurant,” Liu recalled. “It was an amazing reconnecting and learning experience for me.”
Today, he’s back in L.A. and fully embracing his roots with his 2-month-old pop-up, Tiger and the Horse, a recurring dinner series named for the Chinese Zodiac signs of close family members.
With the tagline “Taiwanese heart, Punk AF,” his tasting menu is dedicated to sustainability. Dishes often are made with offal, seafood and repurposed trimmings that usually wind up as waste.
On a recent Sunday, Liu cooked for eight diners at Cognoscenti Coffee in downtown L.A., an open laptop blasting the Damned, Buzzcocks and Sheer Mag.
He began with pickled green tomatoes, scallion roots and amaranth greens, lacto-fermented in a simple bath of salt and water. They were followed by skewered chicken hearts, marinated in tamari, rice wine and ginger, then lightly grilled on binchotan charcoal and brushed with yuzu kosho.
After a plate of chamomile-steamed ankimo with a serrano chile-and-ginger-fermented tamari that Liu has been aging over eight years, there was a nigiri course with kombu-aged skipjack, squid and honey-cured Spanish mackerel, line-caught to avoid endangering threatened fish populations.
Dinner typically involves around six to eight courses and is priced between $65 and $75 per person, with two seatings each night. Eventually, Liu wants to open a place of his own with an à la carte menu.