Jumpstart your day at this Taiwanese breakfast pop-up in Chinatown
Vivian Ku’s first two restaurants, Pine & Crane in Silver Lake and Joy in Highland Park, became neighborhood fixtures through their fast-casual airiness and the evident lightness of the Taiwanese dishes they serve. The subtlety of flavors and emphasis on vegetables have never been a play at oversimplifying the cuisine; those traits specifically channel the cooking style of Ku’s maternal grandmother, Fang Chiu Chen, a constant muse in her approach to food.
Chen’s spirit guides Today Starts Here, Ku’s 4-month-old breakfast pop-up in Chinatown. The menu is concise: crisp, griddled flatbreads and dough pockets filled with softly scrambled eggs; rice in various, gently seasoned forms; a few sweeter dishes; and fragrant teas and brown sugar boba. But it is long in family memories.
Fleeing communism, Ku’s grandparents immigrated to Taiwan from Henan, China, in 1949. Chen continued preparing the Henanese wheat-based dishes she’d made all her life: breads, dumplings, noodles, pancakes. Decades later, when three generations of the family were living in Southern California, Ku’s mom would bring home Chen’s homemade mantou (fluffy steamed buns) after weekend visits and freeze them. Almost every morning Ku ate one, rewarmed and topped with an egg or spread with peanut butter, to start the day.
Her grandparents lived in Rowland Heights, Calif., when Ku was growing up. Sometimes they’d pick up Taiwanese breakfast from one of the restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. Her grandpa’s favorite was shao bing youtiao, a Taiwanese classic of fried cruller, fleetingly salty, wrapped in a sesame-speckled flap of baked dough. He waived away the traditional hot soy milk alongside for dipping. “It’s like the driest thing you could possibly eat, but he would just scarf that,” Ku remembers.
As a young adult, Ku lived intermittently in Taipei. The day’s rhythm would begin with grabbing a fan tuan (sticky rice roll) or daikon cakes hot from the griddle among the city’s many breakfast shops and one-operator stalls. “It’s part of the experience of living there because no one makes food at home,” says Ku. “The home kitchens are tiny and the street food is so affordable and so convenient. Everyone just goes downstairs.”
In a 1930s-era building in L.A.'s New Chinatown community, she’s re-creating the on-the-go essence of breakfast more faithfully than she’d planned prepandemic. Today Starts Here (the name screams Bond film; one more with Daniel Craig?) operates out of a kitchen at the end of a central atrium. A cloud bank of red paper lanterns roils over the ceiling like a turbulent sunset.
The food is available only for pickup. While the staff finishes assembling your order, you might stick your head into the attached pop-up store, Chunky Paper, which is selling handmade Lunar New Year envelopes and vegan chile crisp.
Where to start on the breakfast menu? A fan tuan seems vital. In Taiwan mix-and-match Western ingredients (including eggs and bacon) have entered the repertoire. Ku melds tradition and modernism here. The filling is a time-honored medley of pork floss, braised egg and enough minced preserved vegetables for a hit of acid, but with the satisfying addition of youtiao: Cruller plus sticky rice equals wake-up texture blitz. Splurge on the extra dollar for purple rice solely for its cheering pop of color.
The contrasts and echoes of creamy and flaky and crisp make trying a few items together (most are well under $10) an energizing pleasure. In dan bing, often called a Taiwanese crepe, the snap of corn kernels and shaved cabbage burst and crunch against the rolled cylinder of egg. Fried shallots and shiitakes give a gentle bite to daikon cake bound with rice flour.
Scallion-speckled eggs fill shao bing, the sesame-covered pastry loved by Ku’s grandfather. I’m even more fond of the twin griddled dough pockets stuffed with eggs, chive and vermicelli, in part because they retain their heat for so long. Such small things mean something right now.
With the dishes come chile oil and soy-garlic sauce and other condiments; this is breakfast food meant to be customized to your own tastes. Vinegar is a critical addition to savory soy milk employed like broth in a soup with pork floss, hunks of youtiao, scallions and preserved vegetables. Splash in the vinegar and the soy milk begins to curdle, taking on the cumulus texture of silken tofu, while all the flavors become stereophonic.
The soy milk, made in-house, tastes pure and nutty on its own. Served hot, it’s the ideal dip for a fresh-from-the-fryer youtiao with its signature striations, made by stacking ropes of dough and gently stretching them before they’re cooked in oil.
For sipping, soy milk enriched with black sesame is wonderful alongside douhua — the tofu pudding served with ginger syrup that I miss eating in dim sum parlors. Those of us requiring caffeine in our morning beverages have plenty of options: cold brew, coffee with sea salt cream (which syncs up especially well with the savory dishes) and milky tea variations. As in all her businesses, Ku makes sure to showcase the range of Taiwanese oolong teas, from delicate and floral shan lin xi grown at high elevations to the nearly smoky dong dig roasted over charcoal.
The Today Starts Here crew (including manager Cody Ma, who’s worked at Pine & Crane and Joy) hopes to settle into the space permanently. Even through masks and distance, they manage to convey some of the neighborly hospitality that has characterized Ku’s restaurants. One morning I watched a staffer hand a customer her order, and then another one ran right after her saying, “Our owner is here and thinks we can make a better youtiao than the one we just gave you. Do you have two minutes?”
The moment made me miss the graciousness we can experience in restaurants. It also made me think that Chen, who died early last year, would be exceptionally proud of her granddaughter.
Today Starts Here: 935 Mei Ling Way, Los Angeles, (213) 988-7082, todaystartsherela.com. Open Thurs.-Sun., 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Pickup only. Most dishes $5.50-$12.
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