When I wasn’t devouring Liang’s Kitchen’s special chicken, I craved that perfectly flavored rice, tender chicken, and spicy brown chili sauce. I once drove 25 miles from Alhambra to Rowland Heights just for a bite. So imagine my excitement when I heard last year that it was coming to San Gabriel, mere miles from my home. Since then Liang’s newest kitchen has become a favorite spot for my boyfriend Wes and me. One thing, though, remained a mystery while we savored the Three Flavor Chicken or slurped down our hot bowls of Beef ‘n Tendon Noodles: What was the story behind the Chinese Air Force photos and airplanes plastered on every wall and hanging from the ceiling?
I happened to know the owner’s son, Austin Liang, who had studied with me at Mt. San Antonio College. Eager to get some answers about the chicken and the Chinese military memorabilia, I asked if he could arrange an interview with his father, Ivan Liang. The first discovery at the interview was that Liang’s Kitchen’s cuisine was not what I thought it was. While most food bloggers have labeled his food as Taiwanese (including Two Hungry Pandas in our first entry about Liang’s Kitchen), Liang emphasized that his food is multiregional “juan cun cai” or military village food.
The Liang’s Kitchen dynasty started in Taiwan during the 1950s at military villages where members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) sought refuge after losing the Chinese Civil War. Ivan Liang’s mother, affectionately known as Mama Liang, tended to the kitchen while her husband served in the Chinese Air Force as a pilot. Residents of the villages came from all parts of China, so Mama Liang learned to not only cook Southern Chinese food, which is her heritage, but from other village people, Sichuan, Hunan, Taiwanese and other regional foods.
“People all lived in one area. People from Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai,” said Liang, who grew up in the villages. “We lived together; we go to each other’s house to eat.”
In 1975, the Liang family followed relatives to America in search of a better life. Mama Liang, urged by her friends and family to make money off of her delicious food, did what she knew best: She opened a new kitchen in Monterey Park and introduced her “juan cun cai” to Southern California. (While Liang maintains they are the only military cuisine in the area, in Taipei there are various restaurants preserving the cuisine even as the villages disappear).
That first Mama’s Kitchen, opened in 1981, expanded to the spot in Rowland Heights where I discovered the amazing chicken. But Mama Liang retired in 2000 and sold Mama’s Kitchen, which was a surprise to Ivan who had just come back from Thailand. “I asked her, why did you sell the restaurant?” recalled Ivan Liang. Her response: she was simply ready for a break. But he was just getting started. The success of Mama’s Kitchen prompted him to revamp what his mom had retired.
With an emblem of Mama Liang on the door and logos, Liang’s version of the restaurant continues to serve the military village food his mom brought to America. He is a very busy man, with five restaurants in San Gabriel, Monterey Park, Rowland Heights, Arcadia and up north in Cupertino. In the next three months, he is slated to open another three restaurants. The secret to his success, Liang maintains, comes from his mother’s recipes. “When people eat my food, they have a lot of memories,” he said. Even if customers did not grow up, like Liang, in a military village, he said the tastes bring them back to their own mama’s kitchen: “People love my food because it is food you eat when you were a kid.”
From beef pancake rolls originating from the Northern China to the Three Flavors Chicken, a take of the Hainan Chicken Rice, Liang's Kitchen offers a large and diverse menu of foods at very affordable prices.
The Family Style Cold Noodles is such a simple-looking dish that Ivan felt it needed an explanation. One of the few vegetarian dishes, the Cold Noodles may "not look like much," says Ivan, but he urged us to try it. The perfect combination of a sesame and peanut oil blended into the cold, refreshing noodles. Slightly sweet. Oh, so good.
The Beef n Tendon Noodle, as we wrote on Two Hungry Pandas, is a must order at Liang's Kitchen. Tender chucks of braised beef and beef tendon float atop a bed of strong and chewy knife cut noodles in a thick broth. Pickled vegetables add a sour kick to this homey Northern Chinese dish. We also recommend it with the thin noodles.
The Sliced Beef Wrap with Green Onion Pancake is scrumptious. Tender and lean pieces of beef wraps within a crispy, slightly thick green onion pancake. The juices from the beef complemented by the sweet sauce makes this one of our favorites.