In another piece about remembering cheap eats, food writer Esther Tseng recalls dining at Old Country Cafe in Alhambra as a college student in the 90s.
There's nothing fancy about Old Country Café, but when you eat at an institution with a health code grade of B or C (the SGV standard), you know exactly what you want, and it isn't ambiance. I order the pork chop rice, a glutinous meatball, milk tea with pudding, which all amounts to a $12 check.
I try to get a seat at the counter with full view of their posted menu or at one of the tables in the yellow-tinged front room for better service; the wild colors in the expanded room lined with Chinese books out back are loud and unsettling. While Los Angeles institutions worth any bit of nostalgia have come and gone, I'm always so excited to learn that Old Country Café is still here, 30 years after opening. I regard it as one of the sites of discovery for my love of food but also a rediscovery of my identity.
In my high school of 1400, you could count the Asians on one hand.
When I arrived in Westwood in the late 90's as one Asian American student of the UCLA campus's approximately 40% ethnic Asian composite, I felt, for all intents and purposes, a fraud. That I was now a member of the ethnic majority was something I had a hard time reconciling with my first 17 years as a person in the minority in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In my high school of 1400, you could count the Asians on one hand.
There was a lot of catching up to do on my Taiwanese heritage, and, though I couldn't quite articulate it that way at the time, the food in Los Angeles would be how I'd do it. The friends I made were the ones who had similar cravings and were willing to venture out to "Chinese Beverly Hills." They were the ones who made it easy for me to come over to SGV, especially since I didn't have a car and campus was 25 miles away.
While in groups, I had far more late-night, post-party visits to Chinese cafes like Garden across the street. Old Country Café, born in 1985, was an easy way to gain culinary access to my island heritage, specifically the southern part of Taiwan. On top of that, the place was cheap, appealing to the price points of both my college budget and the area's cultural penchant for a good bargain.
My friend Alex always had a thing for Old Country Café. So I went with him because he was well acquainted with the owners and knew what to order. The owners always greet everyone warmly in their classroom-like restaurant. I never had pork chop rice outside of Taiwan, so each bite of Old Country Café's signature dish was like a slice of the motherland I never knew. That chop had singlehandedly renewed my interest in learning about Taiwan. The crunchy and seasoned breading on the thin bone-in cut is always pitch-perfect, and with the accompanying minced meat, half tea egg, steamed and pickled vegetables on rice, was a cheap way ($6.50) to become reacquainted with my heritage.
That chop had singlehandedly renewed my interest in learning about Taiwan
I always had a thing for glutinous meatballs too, with their bright red, ketchup-based sauce drizzled on top. That and minced meat, whether it was on rice or noodles, brought me back to the night markets of Taiwan but without that awkwardly ABT (American-born Taiwanese) experience of being inarticulate. Sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves brought me back to memories of my mom assembling them in our living room.
The stinky tofu? It still stands as the slice of home I never wanted to know —and can't appreciate from afar, either. That one will always be an anomaly.
And oh, the free refills on boba. Though they're now limited to one, back in the day they were "bottomless," which felt a bit like winning a jackpot. The Taiwanese milk tea and tapioca trend had just exploded, and my friends and I got caught up in the storm of driving all the way to SGV for our fix. Eventually, I began to prefer pudding over boba, as boba just made me full, but I still loved the novelty of pulling dessert through a straw.
Whenever I'd leave Old Country Café with Alex, the owners would always makes sure that we had enough to eat, just as good Taiwanese moms do. Since then, Taiwanese food has come a long way. There's a HuffPo diagram that shows Taiwanese food is the most popular food in the state in proportion to the make-up of the population. I'm now in Silver Lake, and Pine & Crane is like the second coming I never thought would happen during my lifetime. From having no access to the cuisine to being a 25 mile trek away and now a 2-block walk, this is a luxury that I'll never take for granted. And every once in awhile, I'll revisit Old Country Café, just to return to the scene of where I learned to become Taiwanese.