David Kuo Brought the Westside the Taiwanese Soul Food It Needed
Since 2016, Little Fatty has been a sole source of Taiwanese comfort food west of the 405. That’s notable because it’s in the complete opposite direction of where most of the Taiwanese American community originally settled in the Greater Los Angeles area.
Like West Covina, where Little Fatty chef and owner David Kuo grew up, after his Taichung-born parents moved to the area in 1967. Back then, it was mostly a white and Latino enclave, but near the larger population of Taiwanese immigrants who began to settle in Monterey Park and Alhambra subsequent to the passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965. Eventually the community expanded slightly north to San Marino and Arcadia, dotting Walnut, Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights and Rowland Heights.
To Kuo, it was idyllic. “We had a big backyard and my mom and grandma grew a lot of Chinese vegetables. I always thought it was embarrassing at the time but looking back,” he says. “I wish I could live that life now.”
Kuo’s upbringing is a big part of what Little Fatty is about. The name is a nod to his own Mandarin nickname, xiao pang. As the youngest of four boys, he says he had to “eat really fast” when his mom would put out four or five dishes for meals. And it was her approachable and flavorful cooking that directly inspires his menus today.
That he wanted to do it in Mar Vista, one of the more diverse parts of town, is part convenience — he lives in Culver City — and part smart business strategy: although it exists in a vast city that boasts the largest Taiwanese population in the United States, Little Fatty is presumably the only casual Taiwanese restaurant on the Westside. (Jon Yao’s Kato, in nearby West L.A., is a much higher-end experience.)
The journey to the restaurant’s current iteration doubled as a personal one for Kuo. After graduating from UCLA, he entered property management and, disenchanted with the corporate world, instead enrolled in the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. He then worked in the kitchen at Jean-Georges in New York before a stint with Charlie Palmer at the Hotel Bel-Air.
In 2014 he left to open Status Kuo — an Asian-fusion restaurant with a rotisserie at its heart of the menu. When that didn’t pan out, Kuo accepted that it was time to embrace his roots, something he’d previously been concerned about trying. “What stopped me was, I was worried about what people were going to say,” Kuo says.
Like so many restaurateurs saddled with the impossibly subjective expectations of authenticity, Kuo created a menu that he’s personally happy with, by ensuring each dish presents a tapestry of thoughtful and fully researched ingredients. For instance, for the base of his mapo tofu, Kuo uses an organic red yeast black bean soy paste chosen from more than 13 he tested. The Meiji tofu is sourced from friends in Gardena.
“I hear a lot that we’re not authentic,” he says. “People are used to the version their mom made, or what their favorite Chinese restaurant made. People aren’t used to these ingredients. It’s more complex.”
But Kuo also is committed to giving people what they want, while incorporating a little twist in each dish to keep them guessing. The most popular item, orange chicken, is akin to what you’ll find at Panda Express, where it was first conceived by chef Andy Kao. Kuo made it his own by kicking up the spice with dried chiles. The equally popular XO noodles are made with the restaurant’s trademark rolled chow fun, a toothy canvas for the savory sauce that’s just a touch sweet and a little shrimpy.
Accomplice, an adjacent bar with its notable cocktail program, has earned consistently high marks for its imaginative, nuanced, and visually stunning drinks. Performing above and beyond Kuo’s expectations, the bar’s origin story was to complement Little Fatty’s food while keeping service going.
“We noticed people stopped coming in after 10 p.m. because, of course, it’s a restaurant. I wanted people to come into the bar later than that, operating like it’s our accomplice: we make food and drinks,” says Kuo.
Last month, Kuo opened Skinny Dave’s in Westchester near LAX. Originally featuring a swath of globally inspired sandwiches, he recently retooled it into a banh mi-only shop. As with Little Fatty, he’s simply learned to give his customers what they want, which here means everything from traditional banh mi to ones made with fried chicken, Salisbury steak, even sweet potato. He sources entirely from Vietnamese manufacturers to keep things on point.
“We make our own pâté, our own banana leaf-wrapped ham, and our own sugar-cane shrimp that goes in the noodle bowl and sandwich,” says Kuo. “We saw an opportunity because there’s just no Vietnamese in this pocket of town.”
In other words, if there is a need for a non-fussy rendition of any particular Asian cuisine on the Westside, we might count on David Kuo to fulfill that next. Considering the strong support he’s found from the all-important regulars and neighborhood locals, he’s found a savvy formula.