I'm sitting with Kato chef Jonathan Yao and his manager Nikki Reginaldo at A&J Restaurant in Arcadia. The acclaimed Los Angeles chef—a James Beard Award nominee who just made the cover of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs issue—agreed to take PRØHBTD on a series of food tours exploring the San Gabriel Valley, an area just east of Pasadena that's famous for its authentic Asian cuisine. Jon did all the ordering, and in what seemed like only minutes, the first plates arrived. I grab the chopsticks and pick up what looks like slivers of fried chicharrón.
"What is this?" I asked as I put a piece in my mouth. It tasted like warm tofu with a crunchy center, but I couldn't be more wrong.
"This is just pickled cucumber," said Jon, pointing to a different dish first, and then saying, "and those are sliced pig ears."
"Yes," Jon confirmed.
"You'll see this in Korean barbecue places, too," said Nikki, in regard to the cucumber. "A lot of the food is pickled."
"Korean people pickle differently than Chinese people," added Jon as both he and Nikki seemed to think I was more interested in the pickled cucumber than the earlobe I was chewing on like fried gum. "Kimchi is sour because it's fermented, but the Chinese typically pickle with soy or vinegar or both."
"So you actually eat the pickled cucumber and the pig ears together?" I asked. This was, after all, my first experience with pig ear.
"You don't have to," responded Jon.
"You just freestyle," laughed Nikki.
"Are pig ears common in Taiwan?" I asked.
"Yes, this is common," Jon explained, as is pig's blood cake, apparently. "Usually it's sliced thin or they press it into a mold to make it look like a terrine. They just braise it, and enough liquid is left over that it turns into a gelatin and keeps it as a square."
Jon was born and raised in Southern California, though his parents were born in Taiwan and his grandparents in China. Nikki, meanwhile, is a U.S.-born Filipino.
"It's actually pretty good," I admitted. "I have to admit, I never thought I would say that about pig ears."
"You know how we fry the whole fish [at Kato]?" said Nikki. "I've had people freak out on me when I served it."
"Some people just don't like seeing a face on their food," added Jon, whose restaurant serves an affordable omakase menu driven by farm-fresh, California-influenced Taiwanese and Japanese dishes.
"When I was four or five, my dad took me to a butcher and said pick one out," Nikki continued. "They were so cute… I thought we were going to take a pet home… but it was the lechon we were going to grill in our backyard. I was so traumatized that I didn't eat pork for such a long time, but I had to start again because it's just too good."
"What's the story with the hot sauce?" I asked, referring to the sauce placed on each table.
"There are restaurants in Taiwan, but people usually eat from street stalls," Jon explained, referencing the island's famed night markets that serve street-food dishes like stinky tofu, meat-filled buns and oyster omelettes. "They usually have a pot of hot sauce, and it's usually completely different at each stall."
More plates arrive. I was too afraid to ask what was what until after I tried everything.
"This is Taiwanese?" I asked. Jon nodded.
In fact, the first A&J Restaurant opened in Taipei, Taiwan in 1971, and the chain expanded to the United States in 1985 debuting in Alhambra and later opening its flagship location in Irvine. A fourth California location exists in Diamond Bar, and A&J expanded to the east coast with locations in Maryland and Virginia. Its more popular dishes include spicy beef noodle soup, green scallion pancakes and hot and sour wontons.
"How would this be different than traditional Chinese cuisine?"
"Modern Taiwanese food can seem like Japanese," Jon answered, "but what makes this more Taiwanese than Chinese… to me this is Taiwanese because it's what I grew up on. I know cilantro is pretty present in everything, but cilantro, fried shallot and sweet soy are staples of Taiwanese food."
"So would you say modern Taiwanese is more Japanese influenced, while this is more Chinese influenced?"
"Stuff you find in Taiwan you might not necessary find in China," explained Jon, "but there is a lot of Chinese food in Taiwan. The Taiwanese people were conquered by the Dutch and the Portuguese, so there is a lot of weird stuff mixed in between."
I avoided asking about the new dishes, but the chef volunteered information on a few.
"This is just fried chicken," said Jon, who makes Instagram-adored chicken sandwiches at Kato and when he does lunch pop-ups. Now pointing toward a vegetable dish, he added, "But this is really big in Taiwanese food. It's pickled mustard greens. I mean, they call it that, but it's actually Chinese mustard greens. This is pretty typical. I can come here and just eat a bowl of this."
Reaching for the sauce, I asked, "So is this for the soup or chicken?"
"For the chicken," he replied. "When you eat Japanese food, sometimes they have a ton of rules, but there are not too many rules [in Taiwanese cuisine] so do whatever."
"Even if there aren't rules, I want to eat the dish as authentically as possible," I replied. Right then another dish arrived, and I added, "So these are the wontons. Is there anything in particular that makes these more Taiwanese than Chinese?"
Jon responded, "They are smaller, but wontons are super Chinese. Taiwanese culture… I don't know if it was in the 1920s or 1930s, but all the nationalists who lost the war in China, like my grandparents, had to flee to Taiwan. Anyone from before the 1920s is either indigenous Taiwanese or the forced-labor Chinese people, so Taiwanese culture is relatively young."
"To what extent were the indigenous Taiwanese different than the Chinese?" I asked.
"They are not like Han Chinese," he explained. "What are the indigenous Australians called?"
"Aborigines," said Nikki.
"So they are biologically like aborigines, but there is a specific name for them."
"They are from Australia?" I asked.
"No, they were in Taiwan," Jon said.
Taiwan had aborigines like Australia? Actually, they did. Austronesians—called Taiwanese aborigines or Austronesian Taiwanese on the island—make up various ethnic populations in places like Taiwan, East Timor, the Philippines, Madagascar and Micronesia. The indigenous Taiwanese likely lived in isolation for 8,000 years before a wave of Han Chinese started coming to the island during the Qing Dynasty in the late 1600s. Though Japan would control Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, the 1920s saw the rise of the Communist Party and the start of the Chinese Civil War, and when the civil conflict reignited in the 1940s, approximately 2 million Chinese mainlanders moved to Taiwan in a short time period.
"So now the beef noodles," I said.
"Usually when people think of Taiwanese food," Jon explained, "they think of beef noodle soup. That's more of our traditional dish, but with scallion oil noodles."
"They are spicy," I said.
"We got the spicy one. They have a bunch of different types."
"What do you mean by scallion oil noodles?" I asked.
"You had the pork belly bowl at Kato, right?"
"When you have that in Taiwan, it's usually a small bowl of rice, and they basically season the meat with soy sauce and fried shallots, and you only get a little bit of meat on top," he explained. "This would be like a noodle version of that."
(Note: David Chang does a Momofuku version of this with ginger.)
"Earlier you said beef noodle soup is commonly associated with Taiwanese cuisine. Did it originate there?" I asked.
"Just like how ramen is actually Chinese," said Jon, referencing a dish typically associated with Japan, "the beef noodle soup is, too."
"Taiwan just popularized it?"
"Soup noodles are popular in China, but there are no specific types that are widespread," said Jon before pointing at another dish traditionally called lo bak go. "Now these are shredded radish cakes. It's like a hash brown inside of a pastry. It's usually a breakfast thing."
"This is delicious," I said. "What's inside of it?"
"Shredded radish, or daikon. Before Kato, I was doing pop-ups at my house. We would do eight seats and run five to eight courses, and there was a super nice Korean market I shopped at right next to the Diamond Bar location [of A&J], so I was eating this two or three times a week."
"How long were you doing pop-ups?"
"It spanned the course of a year, but at different times. I did them before I went to [stage in] San Francisco and then again when I got back."
"Before you were at Coi, where did you develop your culinary skills?"
"Just watching my mom cook," he explained. "I mean, I worked at Alma [in Los Angeles], too. I always wanted to work at a Japanese restaurant, but I never got the chance."
With Japan occupying the island for half a century, Taiwanese cuisine naturally features Japanese influences as well as Chinese, Austronesian and even Fujian. In this same spirit, Kato primarily serves Taiwanese-Japanese cuisine with ingredients sourced from California farms, yet Jon boldly adds elements from other Asian cultures as he sees fit.
And on that note, we asked for a bunch of to-go boxes and headed out.