The restaurant Pine & Crane opened in Silver Lake in March 2014 and caused an immediate splash in a neighborhood already burgeoning with unique culinary options.
Offering mindful turns on Northern Chinese comfort food at accessible price points, the success of Pine & Crane also drew a spotlight on its young, ambitious chef and owner Vivian Ku.
Based on the positive momentum of Pine & Crane, Ku opened her smaller venue, Joy, in Highland Park in March 2018 to yet more local interest and acclaim.
“Both venues have a good amount of Northern Chinese influence, especially Pine & Crane, I would say,” Ku said. “(There is) a lot of focus on buns and noodles and dumplings. It’s a little more family-style portions, whereas Joy is more casual.”
Joy is on Highland Park’s hip strip of York Boulevard.
“We feature more street food dishes like the clamshell buns or the thousand-layer pancake,” she said. “Things you can hold onto and eat while you walk is the spirit behind the place.”
Soon enough though, Ku was contemplating a move a bit closer to her own background and personal tastes: Taiwanese breakfast. Today Starts Here, Ku’s pop-up in Chinatown opened in October of last year, in the middle of the pandemic churn.
“I’ve always wanted to do Taiwanese breakfast. It’s probably my favorite meal of the day, when I’m in Taiwan,” she said.
“It’s just the most comforting meal. It’s a lot of soy milk and carbs. Whenever I land in Taiwan, it’s the first thing I would want. So, I was always drawn to serve Taiwanese breakfast.”
The Chinatown location was attractive for a few reasons.
“Chinatown is in between Highland Park and Silver Lake. I figured it’s in Chinatown. Chinatown is a Cantonese population most of the time,” Ku said.
“But things like soy milk and crullers, those are things that should be very familiar to (anyone) with a Chinese background. So, we thought it would be a good place to open.”
The plan began to hatch before the onset of the pandemic last March.
“We were looking at that location (in Chinatown),” she said. “The landlord approached us before the pandemic hit and we were excited about it. But because of the pandemic, we put it on pause. Both restaurants closed down for a while.”
Operational and staffing plans were in place as health department restrictions began to lift. Ku reopened Pine & Crane and Joy at the end of May and reassessed the landscape.
“When we returned, we had plans before the pandemic based on who was going to what location and who was going to take on more responsibility. Because we already had that structure and we didn’t want to lose that, we were able to talk to the landlord.”
The notion of an ostensibly temporary pop-up experiment seemed intuitive given the exigencies and uncertainties of the pandemic.
“We didn’t do a full build,” Ku said. “Can we approach this as a month-to-month situation and treat it as a pop-up? That way, we could split up the team and keep everyone on their trajectories. It was an in-between solution, if you will.”
The menu at Today Starts Here is relatively simple. Remember Ku‘s description “soy milk and carbs”? It’s apt, but even Keto dieters should consider making an exception for this breakfast in Chinatown. The prices are reasonable. Inexpensive and delicious, it’s not just any breakfast special.
Favorites include the fan tuan ($5.50), sticky rice rolls stuffed with pork floss, soy braised egg, preserved vegetables and you tiao fried dough. Swap in purple rice ($6.50) or make it vegan or vegetarian at will. Savory soy milk ($6.50) is served with pork floss, preserved vegetables, you tiao and scallions, all dressed out with vinegar and chili oil. There are dan bing ($6), the traditional crepes filled with eggs, scallions, corn and cabbage. Shao bing ($6.50) with scrambled eggs and scallions and folded into flaky pastry. Mantou, simple plain buns, are available steamed ($1.50) or griddled ($2.50). There’s always a daily combo as well. Most recently, the combo featured two daikon rice cakes with fried shallots and shitake mushrooms paired with a dan bing and a choice of savory, black bean or plain soy milk ($12).
Dessert options include the silky tofu pudding, dou hua with ginger syrup ($5) or with a topping choice ($6). Toppings? Red bean, grass jelly, taro, fen guo jelly and boba. There is also red bean mochi with Osmanthus ($6) and grass jelly in coconut cream with boba ($6). In addition to the house soy milks, beverage choices include iced teas, six hot loose leaf teas as well as cold brew and drip coffee preps.
Ku grew up on a vegetable farm outside Bakersfield and attended Harvard College as an economics major. That’s where her restaurant dreams began to manifest. “I ran a grill on campus senior year and staged at restaurants.”
The business appealed to her. “I like how it’s very high energy,” she said. “I like how you get to create a place that didn’t exist before and have people come together. People are generally very happy when they eat, so I thought it was a good way to make a living.”
She enrolled at the storied Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, immediately after graduating from Harvard. “I graduated in June and enrolled (at CIA) in July. I convinced my parents. ‘It’s 21 months only. It’s a very quick thing.’ Two more years at culinary school. They were very cool about it, thankfully.”
With her mini empire thriving against the odds, Ku hasn’t retreated from the kitchens or the dining rooms, such as they are. “We’re still a very small operation. We’re not at the size where I’m removed from anything. I’m still very involved back-of-house and front-of-house.”
With Los Angeles restaurants permitted to seat patrons indoors at 50% capacity, is there a plan to formalize the service at Today Starts Here?
“We’re actually still in pop-up mode,” Ku said. “We’re still trying to figure out what makes more sense long-term. So, we might not stay there longer term but in the meantime, it’s been a lot of fun running the concept in downtown with our team, trying to do a different meal service and introduce Taiwanese breakfast.”
Ku said she is grateful that patrons were willing to try her restaurant during a pandemic.
“I do see light at the end of the tunnel and can’t wait until we all make it through together and we’re able to dine together again,” she said.
“I really miss a full dining room. I can’t wait until we all make it through together.”