In Los Angeles, we're treated to every possible shape, size, and incarnation of Latin American street food — not that anyone's complaining. Who could grouse about the abundance of tacos and tortas, the copious amounts of pupusas and cemitas, and the plenitude of huaraches and quesadillas. Our cups runneth over with horchata and Jarritos. But what about the inexpensive urban culinary traditions from other parts of the world?
Ed Hsu picked a pretty good place for Kembo, his Taiwanese street food trailer. Areas with heavy foot traffic are hard to come by in Los Angeles, and that's without factoring in things like parking restrictions and restaurant owners who don't like mobile food vendors within spitting distance of their establishments. But the place Hsu chose — in front of a Ralph's grocery store, just off the 10 freeway in Monterey Park, with a movie theater one block over and a 99 Ranch Market just down the street — gives a steady, and diverse flow of foot traffic.
It's a veritable rainbow coalition, actually. A Caucasian couple passes by; the female half of the pair points at the menu and whispers something to her partner. They order some of the Taiwan-style grilled corn. Seconds later, a Hispanic couple pull up right behind the Kembo trailer in a blue Dodge pickup. A man gets out of the truck and orders some glazed chicken. A Chinese woman walks up minutes later and begins speaking to Hsu in broken English. The young man taking orders looks up from his notepad and says, "Oh, he speaks Chinese!" "Ni hui shuo zhongwen ma?" the woman asks, relieved. Oh, do you speak Chinese? Hsu nods and laughs.
Hsu, who works the trailer every night (except Sundays) with three other guys (everyone's related by blood, too, but they can't tell me exactly how), graduated from the California School in Culinary Arts in 2009. He's working a fryer full of small pieces of breaded chicken dotted with basil — a Taiwanese take on popcorn chicken.
He's wearing an air-pollution mask and an all-black outfit, making him look a little like a stealthy E.R. surgeon
He's wearing an air-pollution mask and an all-black outfit, making him look a little like a stealthy E.R. surgeon. He conceived of Kembo because he missed the cheap street foods of Taiwan, where he's from. "I just felt like there wasn't anything here like we have back in Taiwan," he says. "The night market culture is big there," he continues, referring to the leisurely open-air markets that are popular in Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and other Asian countries and are known for their abundance of fresh, cheap food.
The popcorn chicken ($3.50) is one of the best items on the menu. Hsu goes light on the breading and heavy on the spice. The chicken goes into the deep fryer with a fistful of fresh basil. When it comes out minutes later, it's doused in chili and five-spice powder. The result is a paper bag full of hot, crispy bits of fried meat that are spicy and salty, while tasting vaguely of cinnamon and clove. The crunchy fried basil adds a slight, welcome bitter note.
Mushroom oyster skewers ($1.25 or 5 for $5) are tender, moist chunks of mushroom that are given a fairly heavy outer coating. The breading on these mushrooms is different than that of the chicken, however: it's thick and sweet, almost cake-like, but without being overly dense. The breading-to-mushroom ratio is on the high side, but the flavors of the earthy mushroom and slightly sweet cake work together well.
The Taiwan-style corn ($3) is another worthy option. It's grilled in front of you and slathered in a sweet, garlicky soy marinade. The outside becomes almost caramelized, leaving a thick, black-ish patina on the fresh corn that tastes of honey and soy sauce. Potato tots ($3.25) are prepared in a similar fashion as the popcorn chicken — fried with fresh basil; sparky and heavily seasoned with five-spice powder, giving the salty tots a smooth, anise-y sweetness.
Kembo is located at approximately 330 N. Atlantic Blvd. in Monterey Park. It's open from 6:30 p.m. until 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 6:30 p.m. until 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sundays. Cash only.