Serving Taiwanese Food in Silver Lake: The Story of Pine & Crane | KCET
Serving Taiwanese Food in Silver Lake: The Story of Pine & Crane
A successful restaurant does not happen overnight.
It takes long hours, determination, a good location, exhaustive menu planning, the right ingredients, careful preparation and a little magic. Maybe someone has found ways to shortcut this process, but not Vivian Ku. Her long journey to open Pine & Crane in Silver Lake was built on family history, farming and education as well as working front of house for a thriving restaurant empire and in the kitchen of an iconic California restaurant.
When she opened the doors to Pine & Crane in 2014, the décor inside reveled a giant image of her grandfather making noodles in Taiwan in 1965. The restaurant’s friendly atmosphere and Taiwanese menu, which featured noodle dishes and vegetables from their family farm, immediately attracted customers. Ku had successfully started a fast casual restaurant run with warmth and efficiency.
In 1949, Ku’s grandparents fled the civil war in China for Taiwan. They lost all of their land and money and had to start from scratch. “My grandfather had a job during the day, but just to make some extra money the side family business at first made tofu,” says Ku. When her grandfather discovered how much electricity it took to make tofu, he switched his operation to noodles, a popular ingredient in his country of origin. Ku’s grandfather worked tirelessly at his craft. “My mom and my uncle were able to have a better childhood because of it,” says Ku. “They always talked about how my grandfather did things,” she continues, “He was not very fast. He was very thorough and very hardworking. He would go to his day job and run the noodle business. They don't remember him resting ever or having time for himself.” More importantly, Ku recalls that “he always talked about how important it was to use the best ingredients and not taking any shortcuts when you made the noodles. He was very much about doing things the right way even if it takes forever, which I hope I carry to this day.”
Her grandfather would sell fresh and dried noodles wrapped in paper at the market and to restaurants. A cousin designed their logo by drawing a picture of an old man under a pine tree with a crane flying over it. “It is a very apt logo for a noodle company because it meant if you ate their noodles, you would enjoy a long life. Pine is a symbol for longevity and endurance,” she explains. “
Ku’s family eventually moved to Southern California in the 1980s and settled in Rowland Heights. Then they moved to Bakersfield when she was five years old to start a family farm. Even though no one in the family had farmed in Taiwan, Ku’s parents purchased 50 acres. Her memories of crops growing on their farm include cucumbers, snow peas and garlic chives. “We always had pea shoots. During the summer yellow watermelon. My favorite.”
Over the years they grew a variety of Asian vegetables, leased more land and eventually retired. Her parents still own one parcel of the original 50 acres. That is where the vegetables served at Pine & Crane are grown. “I also have a cousin who grows sweet potato leaves [and] water spinach in Rowland Heights for me,” she mentions, “All the vegetables that we have in the summer time. Every now and then he will have bok choy and cabbage.”
After high school in Bakersfield, Ku headed to the East Coast to attend Harvard University where she took classes on sustainable agriculture, food systems and agro-business. There she also competed for the opportunity to run an on-campus grill and got hands-on restaurant experience menu planning, sourcing ingredients, making budgets and cooking. Soon she had hungry students lined up to gobble up her hamburgers, mozzarella sticks, french fries and milk shakes. Ku knew she was considering culinary school after graduation, so she added prepping vegetables at Henrietta's Table, a local restaurant inside the Charles Hotel, to her senior year schedule. It was her first time in a professional kitchen.
Next stop for Ku was the Culinary Institute of America. In the midst of the three week courses, Ku also took the GMAT and applied to graduate school. Ku transferred to the west coast to continue culinary classes and work at Chez Panisse on the weekends. “I wanted to be there and experience it for myself. I really did want to open a restaurant, but I was not sure what kind of restaurant,” says Ku, “It did not have to be Taiwanese or Chinese. For me it was about creating an experience.”
Ku remembers visiting Taiwan when she was 6 years old and seeing people drinking boba.
Developing the menu for Pine & Crane, Ku spent a lot of time thinking about what to serve. “People get caught up in ‘is it authentic?’ That’s a question we ask. We ourselves have an identity crisis because when you are in Taiwan, people are always coming up with new and different things.” So the questions Ku asks herself are, “Is it delicious? Do people like it?”
While searching for a location, Ku trudged all over Los Angeles looking at spaces and conducting her own market research. In each neighborhood, she would ask people she met on the street what they thought of her menu. When she saw the space on Sunset Boulevard and met locals excited about Taiwanese food in Silver Lake, she knew she had found the right location. Ku signed a lease and opened in spring of 2014.
Designing the space came with some challenges. When pulling down drywall in hopes of restoring the brick wall that was anticipated underneath, Ku instead discovered plain concrete. At the time, she lost three night’s sleep trying to figure out what to do with it. However, after multiple power washes, a long pine banquet and finding a photo of her grandfather making noodles in Taiwan, the serene concrete wall has come to embody the Pine & Crane aesthetic. The design also features laminate flooring on the ceiling. Pendant lights were on closeout at J.C. Penny prompting Ku to race around L.A. County buying up the last ones. A long pine community table anchors the middle of the dining room. “In Taiwan, there are community tables all of the time,” Ku explains, “It is part of the culture. You have to make sure it fits the neighborhood and I felt like people in Silver Lake were ok with sitting with strangers.”
The menu from spicy peanut, buns, scallion pancakes, noodles, three-cup chicken and mapo tofu also feature those vibrant family grown seasonal vegetables. Ku’s goal was to offer dishes that would be the most popular, more than focusing on the most adventurous. “Growing up with the noodles my grandmother would make, all of my friends would like it regardless of their race,” she remembers. “Flavored with soy sauce, and savory. Noodles are so comforting. It’s very universal. That’s what drew me to Taiwanese cuisine. There is a big enough demographic that would be open to try it. It has to be authentic, but also for people to still enjoy it.”
The kitchen makes almost all of the components of each dish except for one. “We make all of the dumpling and pork bun dough. We make all of the beef wraps,” Ku says, “We could make noodles here, but it is a very messy operation. And we would need another 300 square feet to make them here.” Ku tasted noodles made by several companies and decided on one in Baldwin Park because theirs have the spring and bounce most reminiscent of the noodles her grandmother makes.
More recently, Ku has added an omelet special to the menu. “In Taiwan, it’s a very common place dish and easy to put together," she explains, "A lot of moms make it. It was originally poor man’s food from the Hakka people, which translates to 'guest' people. They do a lot of salting, curing and preserving. This is preserved salted daikon. It’s very flavorful. It’s nutritious. You naturally crave rice when you eat it. So it is easy to get full off of this dish.”
When asked where she sees Pine & Crane in the context of the culinary scene in Los Angeles, Ku thinks for a moment and says,
Ku plans to open a new Pine & Crane concept in Highland Park with a different menu. In Taiwan, it’s called xiaochi which translates to “little eats”. “In Taiwan it is so easy to eat well on a small budget,” Ku explains, “The xiaochi places are small. They serve a handful of things. You walk around and have a little here and a little there.” At the new location, they will be serving a fluffy scallion bread stuffed with vegetarian or pork filling. The menu will also offer soups and cold appetizers.
Ku is thankful her grandfather was able to spend some time at Pine & Crane before he passed away last year at the age of 91. “He’s always been really proud of me ever since I was a child,” she remembers, “He was my biggest fan. All of my memories, he was supportive. I am sure he was touched when he saw his own photo. He sat at the community table. He told me I should have some greeters outside.”
“My generation of American born Chinese and Taiwanese people bring their parents or their grandparents in to show them, ‘this is our version of your generation,’” Ku adds, “It is fun to see their reaction. It is rewarding when we get their approval.”
For Ku, she ends long shifts in the kitchen looking at the last of the day’s spicy peanuts rolling around the bottom of a large metal bowl. She’s been known to add some rice and vegetable and scarf it down before closing up shop.
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