Shao Kao (烧烤 in Chinese) just means "barbecue," so the name of Luther Chen's fledgling, daring new food truck, "Shao Kao BBQ," translates out to a double redundancy in the same way The Los Angeles Angels or The La Brea Tar Pits mean, respectively, "The The Angels Angels" and "The The Tar Tar Pits" when translated from Spanish. So Chen's business means "Barbecue BBQ" and it's just as well, because what he's serving up nightly on Figueroa near the USC campus is twice as good as most other Chinese barbecue you'll find in Los Angeles.
Chen, who is 21 years old, is something of a cooking wunderkind and already has as much experience in the industry under his belt as chefs ten years his senior. At age 15, While still in high school, he balanced his studies with an internship at Robert Simon's AKA Bistro in Pasadena. After high school, he attended the CIA in Hyde Park for a year before taking an externship under chef Daniel Zeal in a kitchen at Sea Island, a luxury resort in Georgia. After that, he went on something of a roots-/vision- quest journey through China and Taiwan (Chen is Chinese), researching regional cuisine and tasting local dishes. Upon his return, he spent some time staging at Benu in San Francisco.
Chen is something of a cooking wunderkind
He then started the fine dining pop-up Xian Wei (roughly translates to "umami" in Chinese) and hosted a series of sold-out nine-course dinners in San Pedro. Chen describes it as "authentic yet modern variations" of Chinese cuisine. "We chose fine dining, rather than a casual pop-up" Chen said via email. "I ran the supper club to hone my fine culinary skills and to have an outlet for my creativity and ideas, and to make people happy." I'll repeat: Chen just turned 21 years old. When I was 21, my big accomplishment was figuring out how to shotgun a blunt without hacking up a lung so I could impress this girl who lived down the hall in my dorm.
That brings us to Shao Kao BBQ which, when I visited, was just in its third day of operation. It was parked on Figueroa across from the iconic Felix Chevrolet sign; Chen, a couple of prep cooks, and a friendly guy in a turban who manned the order window were working in the truck. A dozen or so skewers were being cooked on a double-decker grill; Chen was giving instructions on how to prepare and plate a couple different dishes — the eggplant ($5) as well as a live scallop ($12) along side a grilled oyster on the half shell ($2.50).
The eggplant alone makes the journey to this truck worth the trip.
Aside from the above mentioned dishes, everything else is served on a skewer, Chinese barbecue-style. The eggplant, which was the first thing suggested when I asked for recommendations, is one of the finer vegetarian options you'll find in town. The eggplant alone makes the journey to this truck worth the trip. Long, slender Chinese eggplants are cut lengthwise and rolled out flat. It's covered in a piquant seasoning blend and grilled on a custom-made $6,000 binchotan grill. More on the grill in a minute. The eggplant, perfectly charred on the skin side, is exquisitely tender on the other. Chen covers it in sesame seeds and some freshly foraged herbs ("I went down and picked some garlic flowers and a few other things today," Chen said. He forages, too. No big deal.).
I brought along a vegetarian friend to Shao Kao, so we sampled all the vegetable offerings on the menu, in addition to most of the meat ones. Skewers of blackened shishito pepper ($1), heirloom grape tomato ($1.50) and shiitake mushroom ($1.50) are nicely seasoned, perfectly grilled, and worth your money. Chen's vegetable prep lets the vegetables' natural flavors sing.
Braised pork belly are chunks of ambrosial, meaty, fatty goodness
The mantou ($2.50) has decent flavor but doesn't work quite as well, as mantou are typically steamed — the result is a bun that's a bit dry and overly salty. The meat skewers are also excellent — braised pork belly ($4) are chunks of ambrosial, meaty, fatty goodness, and the poussin thigh ($3.50) was one of the better pieces of chicken I've had in a long time: soft, juicy pieces of thigh that have been brined overnight and carefully grilled over hellishly hot binchotan charcoal.
Ah yes, the binchotan: Chen reckons he's the only food truck in L.A. that uses a charcoal grill (legally, at least) and he's nearly positive he's the only person using binchotan. The specialized, very expensive Japanese white charcoal ("I'm spending so much money," Chen bemoaned) allows for cooking at high temperatures with no flames. No flames mean no flare-ups, which leads to more even cooking, according to Chen.
He's been preparing for the Shao Kao venture for over a year now, and Chen is motivated and determined to get his barbecue truck off the ground: "It took months before we perfected the seasoning blends," he said. "It took many more weeks codifying the recipes and also locking down braising, marinating, and brining recipes."
He chose an odd place to set up shop, however: USC kids do not seem to be the target demographic for what is essentially a fine dining version of Chinese barbecue. With literally dozens of fast food chains within a stone's throw of where Chen parks on Figueroa, there may come a time when he has to reassess and realize that just because he's the same age as other college kids, that doesn't mean they're on his culinary level. Or, frankly, operating within the same budget: Shao Kao's individual skewers are cheap, but a full meal there can add up quickly. Here's hoping, however, that Chen taps into a demographic that recognizes the exceptional work that he's doing.
Shao Kao BBQ is a roving food truck. Its current schedule is Tuesday through Saturday evenings on the corner of 32nd and Figueroa (by the Felix Chevrolet) by USC. They have a website but the best way to find them is probably through their Instagram account.