Where One of SoCal’s Top Chefs Goes to Eat in His Off-Hours

Chef Jonathan Yao is the founder of the Michelin-starred restaurant Kato. Here’s where he goes for the best Taiwanese food in L.A.'s San Gabriel Valley.

A picture of lu rou fan, or Taiwanese braised pork rice.

In the Southland, the San Gabriel Valley is known for its wide variety of Taiwanese restaurants.

Photo by YamisHandmade/Shutterstock

At chef Jonathan Yao’s omakase-style restaurant, Kato, traditional Taiwanese dishes are remixed into modern culinary creations. Here, diners will find Taiwanese braised pork rice distilled into a gel, savory doughnuts filled with uni, and giant boba pearls served for dessert.

However, Kato wasn’t always a Taiwanese restaurant—Yao opened his restaurant in 2016 within a strip located in the Sawtelle neighborhood of Los Angeles. Instead of slinging Taiwanese dishes, he initially intended Kato to serve a Japanese tasting menu billed at just $49 per person. But over the years, Yao began embracing his roots in the San Gabriel Valley (an east L.A. neighborhood known for its large Taiwanese American population) where he was born; slowly, he began incorporating Taiwanese and Taiwanese American–inspired dishes into Kato’s menu, earning himself a Michelin star in 2019. By the time the restaurant moved to its current location in the snazzy Row DTLA complex, a former Union Pacific terminus turned upscale outdoor mall, Kato’s transformation to Taiwanese omakase restaurant was complete.

Chef Jonathan Yao filleting a fish

Jonathan Yao leans heavily into and embraces all the nuances of Taiwanese American nostalgia with his restaurant, Kato.

Photo by Jeni Afuso

“The restaurant is a reflection of me and my upbringing in the [San Gabriel Valley], but it’s also a reflection of my mom’s cooking,” Yao says. “All of my favorite dishes have something to do with my mom.”

As a local chef and a native of the SGV, Yao definitely has some strong opinions about the best places to eat in this sprawling nabe. This is Yao’s guide to the best, destination-worthy places to eat in the San Gabriel Valley.

Eat Joy Food

Location: 18888 Labin Ct. #C113, Rowland Heights
Must try: Steamed sablefish with Taiwanese olives

Located in the eastern suburb of Rowland Heights, Eat Joy Food specializes in truly authentic Taiwanese dishes that are otherwise difficult to find in the States. Here, diners can enjoy an extensive menu featuring things like steamed sablefish (aka black cod) garnished with Taiwanese olives (a bit spicier and fruitier than their Mediterranean cousins), ma you ji, or sesame seed oil chicken soup, and Taiwanese sausage. In addition to the sablefish, Yao also recommends ordering the oyster omelet, topped with a sweet, savory sauce.

Lu’s Garden

Location: 534E Valley Blvd. #12, San Gabriel
Must try: Braised pork rice

Lu’s Garden has been a mainstay in the San Gabriel Valley since its opening in 1989 and serves up old school Taiwanese comfort foods in a cafeteria-style environment with both friendly service and a healthy crowd of longtime customers. The wide array of cold appetizers for guests to consider include bitter melon with anchovies, braised pork ears, and seaweed salad. Yao recommends getting the stir-fried bean curd as well as an order of lu rou fan, soy sauce braised pork belly served over rice and garnished with sweet daikon pickles. As an added bonus, Lu’s famous sweet potato porridge is included with every meal.

Half and Half Good Time

Location: 704 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel
Must try: Taiwanese turkey rice

Bubble milk tea shops that also sell xiao chi, or snacks, are a Southern California staple and an integral part of Asian American culture—popular places where young people can meet, sip boba, and chat for hours. Located in downtown San Gabriel, Half and Half Good Time is a tried-and-true favorite of the SGV. Here, alongside drink options like brown sugar milk boba topped with pudding and taro milk tea, visitors can find teahouse classics like popcorn chicken, Taiwanese sausage, and savory sticky rice. Yao recommends ordering the braised, minced pork rice and the turkey rice, a dish that originates from southwestern Taiwan’s Chiayi county and consists of turkey meat and gravy made from drippings and soy sauce strewn over white rice.

Kang Kang Food Court

Location: 27 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra
Must try: Sheng jian bao

Kang Kang Food Court specializes in Chinese regional cuisine and offers dishes originating from across northern, southern, and eastern China as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Kang Kang also has 200 different dim sum items on its menu and a daily Chinese-style breakfast (think savory soy milk, rice porridge, and you tiao, aka Chinese crullers), served from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. One of the highlights on the menu is its sheng jian bao, a Yao-approved entrée that is a type of pan-fried baozi, or pork-filled bun, which originally hails from Shanghai. Don’t miss out on the beef rolls, which are delightfully flaky and flavored with hoisin sauce and a generous sprinkling of cilantro.

A beef roll plate at Kato

In 2019, Kato earned a rating of one Michelin star.

Photo by Jeni Afuso

Yi Fang

Location: 534 E. Valley Blvd. Unit 6, San Gabriel
Must try: Mango pomelo sago cooler

Taiwan is known for its abundance of fruit trees—there’s nothing better than sinking your teeth into a cold piece of mango or tearing open the skin of a lychee on a hot summer’s day—and for the vast number of tea farms that cover the island’s mountains. Yi Fang, a Taiwanese teahouse, combines all the intense flavors of Taiwanese fruit and tea in its signature drinks, like the ai yu jelly (made from the Taiwanese jelly fig) lemon tea, using locally sourced fruit and teas imported from Taiwan. Yao is a big fan of its mango pomelo sago cooler, a mango and pomelo flavored smoothie topped with tiny sago (a tapioca-like starch) pearls.

Meet Fresh

Location: 9055 E. Las Tunas Dr. #100, Temple City
Must try: Black sugar boba shaved ice

Summers in Taiwan can get very hot and humid, with temperatures reaching up to the 90s in the southern counties. One of the most popular ways to keep cool is by enjoying a refreshing shaved ice dessert known as tshuah ping in Taiwanese (or bao bing in Chinese). Traditionally, tshuah ping involves plain ice served with sweetened toppings (red beans, mung beans, barley, and jellies) and served with brown sugar syrup. However, more modern versions can feature mango- and taro-flavored ice drizzled with condensed milk and topped with ice cream and pudding; diners can find that version at Meet Fresh. Meet Fresh was founded in Taipei in 2007 and has since expanded throughout Asia, Australia, the U.K., Canada, and in several U.S. states, including California, New York, Arizona, Hawai‘i, Texas, and Florida. Diners can choose from a variety of shaved ices like strawberry, black sugar boba, and taro (all of the shaved ices get the Yao seal of approval), as well as grass jelly soup, tofu pudding, and Hong Kong–style egg waffles.

Mae Hamilton is an associate editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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