There’s nothing more comforting than uncomfortable chairs, plastic utensils, and a cash register that’s actually just an iPad that only successfully reads your card like 60 percent of the time, but it’s totally cool because all you have to do is mindlessly click the button that says “18 percent” instead of handling a pen and making a conscious decision of how much to tip and that more than makes up for the lost time. They’re all the hallmarks of a modern fast-casual restaurant. Which is the best kind of restaurant. And the best place to find the best kind of restaurant in the city is in Far East Plaza.
The newest player in Chinatown’s dope-food-in-a-paper-bowl game—joining the likes of Howlin’ Ray’s, Chego, and the eight-thousand awesome concepts jammed into Unit 120—is Lao Tao Taiwanese Street Food. Chef David Wang, who was born in mainland China but fell in love with Taiwanese food while in college, was cooking on a pop-up basis at Chinatown After Dark until the brick and mortar had its grand opening just last week.
Lao Tao looks the part of a modern fast-casual restaurant: The chairs are painted metal, the tables are dark wood, there’s tons of natural light, and the pastel green and white walls are almost bare except for hanging slabs of wood decorated with black Chinese characters.
The food is, in a word, goddamn delicious and also appropriately edited for this kind of format (that was a bunch of words, but whatever, man). His version of banmian—a traditional Taiwanese beef noodle soup—is served with reduced broth acting more like a sauce, which is way easier to slurp from a paper bowl. It’s undeniably beefy, the noodles are chewy, the finely chopped pickled mustard greens on top add some acidic funk, and the raw tomatoes bring in the freshness. And for $12, it’s a big, filling bowl of food.
For something more munchie-like, the popcorn chicken is salty, fried heaven in a bowl. Chopped up bits of chicken thigh are flour dredged, fried, then topped with chili powder, fried herbs, and pickled jalapeño. The chicken is deceptively spicy, and it’s going to make you crave an ice cold beer like you’ve never craved an ice cold beer in your life. That’s one of the few downsides—no beer. Maybe stash one in the bushes to grab on your way out or something. But seriously though, that’s illegal, don’t do that. (You can’t see me, but I am currently winking at you).
To cool yourself down from the chicken (assuming the beer-in-a-bush situation didn’t work out) there’s a cold tofu and century egg salad, which gets a solid flavor bump from rousong, AKA dehydrated pork, AKA meat floss, AKA flossy pork, AKA meat wool (definitely the best nickname). If you’ve never had a century egg—a chicken egg that’s been preserved in salt, clay, and ash—now’s a good time to do it. The white turns black and gelatinous and the yolk turns into a deep and earthy fudge. The cold and creamy tofu offers a sort of flavor-neutral counterpoint to it all.
Oh and when you finish your bowl of wontons, make sure you tip the bowl back and drink the rest of the chili oil at the bottom. Don’t let it go to waste. Lao Tao is the newest capstone in Far East Plaza’s complete fast-casual dominance, and it was just announced by Eater LA today that Eddie Huang’s (also fast-casual) NYC spot Baohaus would be taking over the shuttered Pok Pok Phat Thai space. It looks like Chinatown might actually be the destination dining neighborhood everyone predicted it one day would become. Nice.
Josh Scherer is the Senior Food Writer at Los Angeles magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @CulinaryBroDown. He has a profound emotional relationship with Hot Pockets.