There was life before Mapo Tofu, and life after it.
For many, this paradigm shift happens well before 28, but I’m slow to some things, as I’ve come to accept. My first experience with the dish came casually, when a friend invited me out to a nearby restaurant to grab dinner before a show. I knew the place had plenty of vegetarian options, and a beautiful storefront I’d passed while walking through the Sunset Triangle (a pedestrian plaza in Silverlake), but that was about it. On first glance, I never guessed this quaint, bright spot would soon become a staple in my local routine.
Chef and owner Vivian Ku dubs her Silverlake venture, Pine & Crane, a “fast-casual Taiwanese-Chinese restaurant,” a pithy phrase that both sums up the bare bones of the place and leaves all the juicy morsels of its astonishing atmosphere out. It’s true, the unassuming grab-and-go style adopted by the front of the house can fool the uninitiated like it did me, but frequent visitors quickly realize the adaptability of the spot is all part of its appeal.
Guests order at the counter, with options to add traditional cold Chinese appetizers (wood ear mushroom salad, seaweed and lotus root) and fresh vegetables (pea shoots, chrysanthemum greens, sweet potato leaves) from the Ku family farm to their order. Carryout and pick up are very common, but grabbing a number and a spot along the long back stretch of tables inside the restaurant is just as popular. Dishes come out when they’re ready, and it’s the type of place where portions make sense for sharing, though family style isn’t necessary, either.
On my first trip to Pine & Crane — which is located just down the street from my first, beloved LA apartment — I stuck as closely to my carnivorous impulses as possible, selecting succulent but slightly crispy Pork Dumplings that did not disappoint, and the Three Cup Jidori Chicken, which I later learned is a specialty dish, sanbeiji, that calls for “a cup each of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil.” Of course, these proportions ensure it is some of the juiciest, most flavorful (umami!) chicken on earth.
These dishes, washed down with Taro Milk Tea with Boba, were enough to win me over, but it was a taste of my vegetarian friend’s selection, Mapo Tofu, that changed the evening entirely. Surely, it wasn’t Mapo Tofu itself that led me to begin tapering off my meat consumption, but the idea that I liked a dish without any meat more than the pork and chicken I’d ordered was an important step in that process. For those who swear by the addition of pork to the dish’s thin, bright red sauce, don’t worry: Pine & Crane offers both editions. But my firm recommendation is the vegetarian version, which swaps the pork for trumpet mushrooms. (The three-cup chicken entree can be similarly tweaked.)
After that first trip, I began ordering from Pine & Crane, or making the quick half-mile walk there, pretty frequently. I learned that finding quality Taiwanese/Chinese food this far from the San Gabriel Valley — or in the US at all — makes it a fixture for plenty of expats, immigrants, and second-generation Americans looking for the nostalgia of their culture’s comfort food. For her part, Ku was born in America after her family emigrated to California, and back in 2014 when the spot first opened, she told LA Weekly that her “memories of home-cooked food are all tied up in my memories of visiting my grandparents [in China].”
Which explains the restaurant’s name: it’s taken from her grandfather’s noodle company in China (a giant photo of him making noodles in 1965 at Kaohsiung’s Pine Crane Noodle in Taiwan sits squarely in the center of the restaurant). But even in California, the Kus carried on family tradition with their Bakersfield farm, Sunfield, supplying Asian markets all across the region with Chinese vegetables. Pine & Crane brings the greens further by offering them to the community in Silverlake and the surrounding area.
Whether you’re an expert on the cuisine or just coming into the fold, my tips for ordering at Pine & Crane are deeply influenced by its focus on vegetables. Now, I steer toward the Daikon Potstickers instead of Pork Dumplings: they’re stuffed with egg, shiitake mushrooms, bean curd, and vermicelli, and deliver all the satisfying doughiness and crunch without the heaviness. Plenty of people swear by the Sweet Potato Fries (they’re dusted in plum powder) but I still prefer the Scallion Pancake as a staple. For those adventuring into the cold appetizers, some of the apprehension is cut with the ability to sample – just ask!
If you are eating meat, the Beef Roll is a knockout, with a thin, doughy pancake, slivers of cucumber, cilantro, scallions, and a hearty portion of perfectly seasoned, thinly sliced beef. Douse it in dabs of chili oil sauce from the communal pot on every table for a heavenly hit of heat. The Dan Dan Noodles with sesame-peanut sauce and julienne cucumbers can’t be overlooked, nor can the extensive drink menu, with serious herbal teas sourced directly from Taiwan and plenty of decadent, sweetened options. (Sea Salt Cream Jasmine Green Tea anyone?)
Lately, there’s been a lot of interest in Ku’s second restaurant, the recently-opened Joy in Highland Park. I’ll definitely venture over sometime soon to try the Thousand Layer Pancake, Shrimp Wonton Soup, or the various sandwiches and dessert offerings. But even though the Mapo Tofu made the jump over to the new place as well, my allegiance will always be with the first spot I ever tried it, a little Silverlake outpost tucked around the corner from my first LA apartment.