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‘It’s a Food Open Mic’ ~ Why Chinatown After Dark Is the Place to Find Young Chefs at Their Freest

11:45 AM PST on March 7, 2019

[dropcap size=big]E[/dropcap]very first Thursday night of the month, the Far East Plaza hosts an event called Chinatown After Dark that has emerged as a favorite food incubator for young cooks. It’s a food open mic with a strong sense of community.

Attendees will wander through the stalls and work their way through each vendor. Then they’ll eat on the picnic-style tables with colorful floral table covers. “It’s like a backyard party,” says Jessie Nicely, a chef from the Bay. The crowd at After Dark is made up of loyal returnees, loyal social media followers, or some stragglers from the enormous line at Howlin’ Rays downstairs.

At After Dark you’ll find Royce Burke, of Secret Lasagna and Yarrow Cafe fame, cooking up something he came up with that day. You might see chef Nicely expressing her Burmese roots with Burmese Please. Other times you can find young chefs like Johnny Lee, previously of Side Chick and Monkey Bar, staging his cantonese concept, PRD. Notable past chefs have included: Alta cuisine chef Ted Montoya; Isa Fabro, a pastry chef who specializes in Filipino baked goods; and Beth Kellerhalls the pastry chef of Good Gravy Bakes, who created desserts for Kogi, Crawfords, and several others.

Gochujang chocolate cake from Good Gravy Bakes. All photos by Cesar Hernandez.
Gochujang chocolate cake from Good Gravy. All photos by Cesar Hernandez.

On occasion big chefs like Roy Choi have stopped by. Even the late Jonathan Gold was known to make an appearance. Burke tells L.A. Taco that he got to cook for Jonathan Gold because of After Dark. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at in my career without After Dark,” Burke says. “I’d do anything for them.”

It’s important for chefs to have a space to try new concepts they have been developing. Each vendor is trying something out. And it has an immediacy that a sit-down restaurant can’t deliver. The chefs get to try new dishes that they have been experimenting with, and have the channel to deliver them directly to patrons.

RELATED: Roy Choi the L.A. Taco Interview

Burmese fish with stew by Jessie Nicely, top, with stuffed wings, bottom, by Johnny Lee.
Burmese fish with stew stuffed wings.

[dropcap size=big]S[/dropcap]ince After Dark is a communal space for chefs, it has allowed chefs like Nicely to explore food from her Burmese background. Her culinary background focused on French techniques, leaving little room for Burmese dishes. So After Dark gave her a platform to an audience who is willing to try her more personal dishes. “Burma has so many ethnic identities,” she says. And she explains how that filters into the food: “The curry isn’t as spicy, nor is it as sweet as Thai.”

Some of the items Nicely makes include the mohinga, a catfish chowder that has rice noodles and boiled eggs. She also offers a paratha bowl with curry. The paratha takes the shape of the bowl and soaks up the potato or pork curry. She explains that the cuisine is an amalgamation of the several ethnic identities. “Mohinga could easily be Vietnamese,” she says.

Johnny Lee's curry, left, with Jessie Nicely's paratha potato curry bread bowl, right.
Johnny Lee's curry, left, with Jessie Nicely's paratha potato curry bread bowl, right.

Similarly, chef Lee explores Cantonese dishes and cooking techniques with PRD, named after the Pearl River Delta in Southern China. Lee has had success in the past with Side Chick, as a Hainan chicken specialist, but wanted to focus on Cantonese food. Jack Benchakul from Endorffine, the wonderful coffee shop in Far East Plaza, describes Lee as a student of food.

Lee obsesses over a dish to create the best version, and his dishes with PRD were no different. Some of the PRD’s greatest hits are the stuffed chicken wing – a hollowed out chicken wing stuffed with sticky rice and Chinese cured meats – and a scissor-cut curry that has a soy sauce egg, pork katsu, pork jowl, rice, and a thin but flavorful curry sauce.

Lee cooks Cantonese food for his culture. “It’s the usual reaction, when you’re young you want cook other people’s foods,” he explains. “But I realized my nieces and nephews might not be able to eat this food.”

RELATED: How a Former Biochemist Perfected Her Family Recipe and Introduced L.A. to Coyotas


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