Gastropubs are nothing new to the growing downtown Los Angeles nightlife scene, but rarely do you stumble across one that's Asian-themed, or even more rare, specifically Chinese.
Peking Tavern is doing just that. Owned by Andrew Wong and Andrew Chiu of restaurant hospitality group El Guapo, the tavern is bringing in traditional Chinese dishes and serving them in xiaochi (small bites) form.
The two Andrews are no strangers to Chinese fare. Chiu, whose mother and wife were both born and raised in Beijing, spent six years at the Chinese capital in the '90s; Wong comes from a family of Chinese restaurateurs. Architects by trade, they designed the space to channel the hutongs (traditional neighborhoods characterized by narrow alleyways) of Beijing and the old Chinatowns of yesteryear. Bright red lamps grace the counters, weighed down by copper-toned Chinese guardian lions. Sauce dispensers are scattered throughout the restaurant and equipped appropriately with vinegar, soy sauce, sambal chili, and chili oil. The setup at Peking is a bit different from most bars, but is simple enough: order at the counter, grab a number, and wait for the food to be brought to you.
Drink concoctions are designed by Cari Hah -- previously of The Varnish and Blue Whale -- and she has made sure that all the cocktails come brimming with Chinese flair. While there are craft brews on tap, including Yanjing (a lager from Beijing), we recommend going straight for their eclectic mix of cocktails. Most notable are the whiskey spirits flavored with bitters that include five-spice, and baijiu (direct translation: white liquor). Baijiu, at roughly 40 to 60 percent alcohol, is distilled from sorghum and is famous (or infamous, depending on who you're talking to) for its fuel-like odor and lingering aftertaste. Hah mixes it expertly with rum and flavors it with either horchata, yogurt or hibiscus. The baijiu brand that they use -- Red Star Er Guo Tou Jiu -- hails directly from Beijing.
"It's a common man's spirit," Chiu said. "It's an acquired taste but we're introducing it in a form of a cocktail."
The bar menu is only six to seven items strong and all of the offerings are no-frills traditional Northern Chinese bites. What that means in a nutshell: lots of dough, noodles, and dumplings. The dumplings and noodles are handmade at a glassed-in station near the door. The chefs, Danny and Ms. Liu, are from Hong Kong and Tianjin, respectively. Danny was a former head noodle chef at Mr. Chow and has formal training in Japan under his belt. Ms. Liu, who consults on the dough texture of the dumpling, has worked at various San Gabriel Valley dumpling houses. They are planning to release gluten-free dumplings soon.
Here's the breakdown of their menu, from least to most memorable:
It's not a salad in the lettuce sense. Potatoes are sliced thinly, doused with chili oil and vinegar, and accompanied by a smattering of small cucumbers, unadorned lotus root, and bite-sized celery.
The Chinese phrase for this is cong you bing, which translates directly to scallion oily pancake. The ingredients are straightforward: all-purpose flour, oil, spring onion, and salt. They come cut up in miniature triangles and we recommend dousing them in sambal sauce for a spicy kick.
While completely vegetarian dumplings are rather rare in the San Gabriel Valley, Peking Tavern has made it a regular on their menu due to demand. They're stuffed with wood ear mushrooms, cellophane noodles, egg, and napa cabbage.
It's the most classic dumpling variation there is, enhanced with a sprinkling of chopped scallions. Peking's pork dumplings are boiled and have a nice skin that's thin but resilient enough to hold the meat.
The beef potstickers are the highlight of the tavern's dumpling repertoire and the best option if you need to something to pair with the beer. They're lightly pan-fried to a nice crisp.
Shandong-style beef rolls are also excellent. Beef shanks and cilantro are rolled into a thin pancake and lightly coated with sweet soybean paste and hoisin sauce. Slivers of scallion and cilantro are embedded within.
Noodles are handmade whenever Mr. Liu is in and are usually served zhajiang-style with ground pork coated in a fermented soybean paste. Julienned young cucumbers offer a welcome respite. The noodles are also sometimes served in soup with beef shanks.
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