They say you need money to make money. You also need customers to attract customers. Witness this principle in action at Liang’s Kitchen, a weeks-old Taiwanese restaurant in Irvine, which, as of this writing, has seen impenetrable lines since day one. This kind of buzz always begins through old-fashioned word-of-mouth—whispered during church service, around office water coolers, at family dinner tables. But after that, the popularity is self-sustaining. Everyone wants to eat where everyone else is eating. Crowds beget more crowds. If there’s an unspoken rule among Chinese diners to avoid the empty restaurants, the opposite is even truer: Go where the wait list is longest.
A Taiwanese co-worker of mine, who had no idea that Liang’s Kitchen is affiliated with branches in the San Gabriel Valley, knew of the restaurant not through its reputation for beef tendon soup, but from the constant mob of people he saw gathering outside. Last I talked to him, he had plans to take his entire family to join the crowds. He didn’t seem to care that the area is already saturated with other restaurants—such as A&J and Chef Chen, both of which also do noteworthy nou riu mian (beef noodle soup) and fried scallion pancakes. For now, because of customers like him, Liang’s Kitchen’s honeymoon is one that even the naysaying early-bird Yelpers are powerless to quell.
The dangling toy fighter planes, black-and-white photos of proud soldiers in uniform, and the Colonel-Sanders-like emblem of its founder, an iconic silhouette of the woman known to the Taiwanese community at large as Mama Liang, also help to attract curious looky-loos. The story goes that Mama Liang’s husband served as a pilot during the Chinese Civil War. When he was exiled to Taiwan with the rest of Chiang Kai-Shek’s army in the ’50s, Mama Liang began a restaurant that, loosely translated, served military-village cuisine. Hers was a multiregional array of dishes to satisfy the palates of fellow refugees who came from all corners of the mainland.
In Liang’s Kitchen’s nou riu mian, the noodles come either belt-wide or string-thin. The former are handmade and springy, resisting your bite and playing to the Northern Chinese preference for wheat-based starches. Vinegar sharpens the anise-scented, murky-brown broths—easily the tangiest, liveliest beef soup in the neighborhood. But the sought-after item in each bowl isn’t the noodles or the soup; it’s the tendon, which speaks to the general Chinese fondness for squiggly, jelly-like textures. Bowls featuring the bobbing, boulder-sized chunks of tendon fetch a premium over the plain-old beef ones. Lucky diners will get a little bit of both—the slippery, aspic-clear gelatin wiggles before melting; its attached, long-stewed muscle meat falls to shreds. A bowl of just the tendons in soup can also be ordered without the distraction of starch.
Before burying their heads deep into the bowls, diners usually start with a warm-up of cold appetizers such as chilled bamboo shoots, crunchy julienned seaweed and quick-brined cucumbers. Those who opt for the lukewarm rather than the cold can try the squid, in which wafting fumes of ginger permeate bloated whole cephalopods simmered past the point of toughness. Only the inedible spine interrupts what will be an effortless chew. And no one leaves Liang’s Kitchen without ordering at least one plate of the green onion pancakes. These salty, oily, flat disks of multilayered dough are blistered crisp and quartered to be eaten like bread, dunked into soup, or soaked in slurries of vinegar and chile paste. The pancake also forms the basis of at least two other appetizers. As the roast-beef roll, it’s tightly wound with layers of ruddy beef to form a sort of crispy, greasy, meat-filled jelly-roll that’s sliced into bevels you can barely fit into your mouth. No table is complete without a plate or two.
Few people try the open-faced fried tofu, but everyone should. A savory brown sauce and a bunch of chopped cilantro hide the pristine white of the curd, while a heaping spoonful of chile paste sits menacingly on the side. Though technically an appetizer, the dish is generous enough to serve as a meal for vegetarians. For everyone else not up for tendon chewing or noodle slurping, there are rice plates. The best come labeled as “lunch boxes” and include all the trimmings: rice topped with soy-sauce-simmered ground pork, jade-colored pickled greens and steamed veggies. The two best greatest of these involve fried pork. A coating that crunches as noisily as stepping on pebbles cocoons both the bone-in pork cutlet and the “special red pork.” The red pork alone, with its eye-catching char-siu coloring and rice-wine-marinated bent, trumps the Mexican milanesa, Japanese katsu and country fried steak as the world’s most intensely flavored deep-fried meat.
The dish that seems to most recall Liang’s Kitchen’s modest roots involves no meat, not even tendon. It’s called the Oil Onion Noodle with Egg; an elderly couple next to us enjoyed their bowls quietly as spiky, anime-coifed waiters a quarter their age flitted around them clearing tables. Not a word was spoken between them, just the slurping of noodles slicked under a silky sheen of an oil-based emulsion with shards of fried onion and an over-easy egg on top. I figured it might have reminded them, perhaps fondly, of those hard-fought days of old—meals worth rekindling, despite the lines.
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Liang’s Kitchen 5408-I Walnut Ave., Irvine, (949) 262-1404; www.liantscuisine.com. Call for hours. Main dishes, $4.75-$7.75.
This review appeared in print as "These Lines Don’t Lie: The Taiwanese fare at Liang’s Kitchen is worth the wait, and comes with a side of history."