Friday, May 4, 2012

The Real Kung Pao Wives of Beverly Hills

I do not consider myself a bandwagon girl. I am instead an irritating contrarian. My favorite Katherine Hepburn movies are the ones you haven’t seen. I hate chocolate cake. I take surface streets from the Valley to Santa Monica.

Just to piss you off.

This reality can be traced to two moments in my life. The first was when I chose to abstain from all organized sports as a child, instead preserving the sanctity of the after-school snack hour. As a result, even now I have a paralyzing fear of falling down, a fear that I rarely witness in people who have played competitive sports at some point.

Falling down was never an integral part of my life (soccer, skiing, assorted physical hijinks), and so to this day it remains worst case scenario. Even if technically I am only somewhere between 1 and 4 inches off the ground, the panic sends me into a quiet meltdown, and I tend to flee the scene in search of chocolate-coated comfort.

Temple Grandin had her Hug Machine. And I have the Choco Taco, an improbably not disgusting frozen delight now made harder to find by the complete evaporation of almost every physical Blockbuster store, and the impulse-buy frozen treat cases they housed.

The second moment that forged me into an oppositionist happened on a blustery fall day in the late 90’s. I heard the crunch of tires in the driveway, and looked up from my after-school snack. (See: Second Paragraph) Footsteps landed with eerie determination on the gravel, then the stairs, then the porch. Faster than usual. My sister crept to the top of the stairs above me, her eyes wide with (terror? hours of continuous television programming?)

My eyes never leaving the front door, I took what could have been my last ever bite of cinnamon toast. The door flew open, or slowly creaked open, or opened at a normal speed. My eyes struggled to focus in this new natural light that had shattered the blue light emissions of the My Two Dads re-run I had been enjoying.

There stood my dad, a scarlet feveresque spark in his eye-the result of an impeccable and inescapable marketing campaign that had now made its way into my home. He didn’t have to think about it, and it was the most certain of anything that I have ever heard him sound. He just said it.

 “Everybody get in the car. We’re all going to Old Navy to get those vests.”

And so I spent much of high school in a square fleece vest the color of a taxi cab, and while I have certainly made much more egregious fashion errors (and continue to do so to this day), that was really the moment I decided not to do the thing everyone else is doing.

I live in Los Angeles, and once in a while I have a sickeningly California day. The kind of day that everyone who doesn’t live here thinks you have every day, except that of course you don’t. Unless it’s one of those days that you accidentally do. Savvy?

Now that you know that I am contrarian and why I am as well, I can tell you that sometimes I accidentally have a completely typical Los Angeles day, despite my best counter-offensive. This one was a Thursday.

For reasons I will not go into, unless you ply me with red wine and curly fries, at which point I start giving away missile codes anyway, I had to have a bit of a “proceeeeeedure” done the other day in Beverly Hills.

It’s not what you’re thinking.

It’s not that either.

Not even that.

It’s so boring and un-scandalous, it’s kind of disappointing actually. Nothing about me is bigger or smaller, or better or worse, less or greater, or younger and “more radiant.” It was something so lame, but that had to be done, and it was by pure circumstance that the office was in Beverly Hills, thus making the whole scenario completely damned typical.

But I decided to milk it anyway. I found my big dark sunglasses. The ones that make me look like a glamorous drug mule. I got a Venti something. And I went in for my “proceeeeedure."

 *This part is censored*

Ok, “proceeeeedure” complete. Stop trying to figure it out-I’m having too much fun tormenting you with it.

I left the immaculate office, hit Rodeo Drive unnecessarily limping for dramatic purposes, walked past a reality show filming, stood in line behind a certain British television personality to get my car, and headed out of my completely typical Los Angeles day on $4.50 a gallon unleaded.

The further east I got on Santa Monica Blvd, the more I yearned for the complete opposite of lovely cream colored, crystalline, serene, highbrow Beverly Hills. My contrarian soul was starving. For something messy and atypical and informal and delicious. Something spillable and surprising, and eaten standing up.

And there she sat. On a busy corner of Highland Blvd, a twin assault. The Don Chow taco truck. Chinese-Mexican fusion tacos. In front of a cupcake bakery. I wanted atypical. And atypical happened.

 Atypical came from this guy.

Atypical came in the form of sweet sticky Kung Pao chicken with cilantro and salsa on a tortilla. Chinese BBQ pork is lovely and traditional and delicious. But Chinese BBQ pork in soft taco form with onion dice, salsa, and limes is fusion at its best. Smoky Carne Asada is the beef that makes fajitas sizzle and hearts melt, and is a touchstone of familiarity on the menu. In the pantheon of comfort foods, Chinese food and tacos reign equally. And so it should not be a “Soilent Green is people” type revelation that Chinese food in a taco with an avocado on top is completely magnificently delicious.

Somewhere around 60,000 Chinese people entered Mexico during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, they were Mexico's second largest foreign ethnic community. We can assume they brought an authentic spicy and nutty Sichuan iteration of Kung Pao chicken with them.

Meanwhile, "the taco predates the arrival of Europeans in Mexico. There is anthropological evidence that the indigenous people living in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico traditionally ate tacos filled with small fish." Sometimes wikipedia just nails it.

And after a couple hundred rowdy years of cultural diffusion, these two dishes, born of two very different ancient cuisines, wound up sharing the same paper boat on a modern day Los Angeles street corner. Each is a highly Westernized version of itself, and the product of their union is an edible "third way." That cornstarch-dusted Kung Pao Chicken sitting in a taco underneath pale creamy bars of California avocado, is the product of 3 distinct cultures, hundreds of years of culinary construction and erosion, and a latex-gloved assemblyman who possibly lives in Encino.

If you were hungover, and you had Chinese leftovers in the fridge, and a pack of tortillas…

You get the picture. These guys got there first.

So I had my Kung Pao chicken taco, in all its messy fusion anti-Beverly Hills glory. Then I killed a strawberry cupcake from cupcakery it sat in front of. Frosted is all that a cupcake bakery should be. Lovely and light, sweetly retro, and fully stocked. The lady in me appreciates very much a row of creamsicle umbrellas and neat columns of baked goods.

And thank God I don’t have those webbed feet anymore. Just in time for beach season.

Your Weekly Misfire:


  1. Hi Frances,

    This is Dominic Lau, co-owner of Don Chow Tacos. Thank you for the great review. I really like the picture you took of the truck from afar and was wondering if we could use it on our website and/or post it on our Flickr site. If you agree, please let me know what credits we should use. Thank you and we hope to see you at the truck soon!


    1. If you agree, can you please let us know via email at info (at) or via twitter @donchowtacos or Thank you!