Growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, breakfast usually meant shoveling into my mouth spoonfuls of technicolor cereal, swimming in 2% Wisconsin dairy milk, while reading the back of the box for the fifth time. But during these formative years, I frequently visited Taiwan, too, on trips in which I started every day with a different kind of breakfast.
My aunties would wake before my parents and me every morning to collect freshly prepared goods at their local street stands. We’d be treated to hot soy milk (dou jiang) and just-fried, flaky golden crullers (you tiao), some of which were wrapped in baked dough dusted with sesame seeds (shao bing). Dunking these breads into warm soy milk was sacrosanct, the only messy, crumb-laden meal during which I’d be absolved from a scolding.
This was food I was skeptical my Polish and German-descendant friends at home would understand, and I would be reluctant to explain it to them. Over the course of one week in the third grade, for instance, curious peers asked me incessantly if I ate rice and used chopsticks every night. (I did, sometimes with sliced bratwurst next to slivers of Taiwanese sausage.) In Taiwan, it took me some time to reconcile my Midwest-groomed palate with the lunch and dinner fare my extended family served. But breakfast? I easily enjoyed that, and enjoyed it most.
I can’t forget, for instance, the sumptuously stuffed, steamed baozi filled with ground pork, chopped chives, or other fillings my aunties would bring us. But what I really loved were plain steamed mantou, made primarily of the same white wheat flour. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but what moved me was the comforting dankness of its plump insides (which sometimes had a noodle-like consistency), which made it so fun to pull apart, or chew on — maybe even stretch, squeeze, or bury my nose in. That’s a consistency you miss when biting into the clamshell of a gua bao filled with braised beef or glazed pork belly, the far more popular mainstream use of steamed buns stateside. Unfortunately for my dad, who served a mandatory year of military service in Taiwan, mantou was served every single meal, souring him on the plain bun.
In my heart, and against all diet science, carbohydrates are still the base of my food pyramid.
Los Angeles, where I live now, has an abundance of places that serve Chinese and Taiwanese breakfast. Huge Tree Pastry in Monterey Park has become my favorite stop when craving these flavors, textures, and memories. The restaurant’s casual, mirror-lined dining room is filled with off-white tables — large rounds in the center of the room, smaller rectangles around the perimeter — serving as a blank canvas for a scene as lively as the disposition of the locals and Taiwanese food enthusiasts who fill it.
In addition to plain soy milk (add sugar to taste), Huge Tree also offers a salty, savory variety with green scallions and snippets of you tiao floating in the bowl. Their shao bing are baked fresh every day, filled with braised beef and cucumbers, or served plain, perfect for wrapping around you tiao and dunking into soy milk.
The rice porridge, with a choice of toppings; scallion pancakes; bamboo leaf-wrapped sticky rice triangles; noodles; and noodle soups are all solid. The danger of ordering too much food always looms. The menu at Huge Tree Pastry hits all the essentials for not just Taiwanese breakfast but lunch, too. But the item that fits in either column is also one I will eat while there and take to go: the salted rice ball, or fan tuan. Available wrapped in either white or purple sticky rice, the fan tuan just a tad more salty than sweet, with a thin fried egg, pickled mustard greens, dried pork hay, and yes, another you tiao swaddled inside the layer of sticky rice and made portable thanks to its plastic casing. The interplay of crunchy with sticky textures over the sweet and salty notes makes eating the entire roll a delight.
In the past, what truly motivated me to wake up early enough to drive to San Gabriel Valley for breakfast was the chance to share these foods with others — not really an option during the pandemic. These days, my cravings are driven by the need to recapture a sort of nostalgia, memories of familial camaraderie during a time when I cannot visit my aging parents face to face. So while I reserve my next dine-in visit for helpings of fresh you tiao and dou jiang, fan tuan remains a trusty, versatile takeaway item that allows me to recall memories of those mornings in Taiwan with me. I eat in my car, quick to capture the crackle of a still-crispy you tiao at the center of the other sour, sweet, savory, and glutinous components in each bite. And I’m comforted with all the tastes that once were so foreign, but are now familiar.
Huge Tree Pastry, 423 N Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, 626-458-8689.