LA is Mecca for Asian food with generations-old dim sum joints to fancy newcomers (Mr. Chow and Chi-Lin come to mind). But the middle ground of authentic flavors, reasonable prices, and good service seem to elude Angelenos—a place to accommodate families, but also charm a date. Pingtung, a new self-described dine-in market on a dingy stretch of Mid-City West on Melrose, has done just that with its simple layout and modest wooden decor (Asian café up front selling snacks and larder goods and a slightly more formal dining room in the back), serving good, inexpensive pan-Asian cuisine. It’s no surprise that this new neighborhood gem has been unearthed by a mixed-batch of dedicated regulars.
The ambitious menu lists the cuisines of China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan, daring to enter no man’s land of "fusion" cuisine. On any given night you might spot a local hunched over spicy tuna roll and salmon sashimi in one corner, while a group of young diners sip sake and debate whether the skin on the potstickers are thin enough (it is). The big surprise here is that despite the round-the-globe offerings, Pingtung serves cheap, full-flavored food that’s delicious.
Try Pingtung’s riff on the beef roll ($6.95): Slightly sweet marinated kalbi-style short rib beef (and its juices) are paired with slivers of scallion and filled inside a soft, thin fried flatbread. Plump crystal shrimp dumplings ($5.50) here are a good and fresh version of classic har gow and should be dipped in Chinese black vinegar. While the sesame-spiked seaweed and bean curd in vinegar ($4.95), with its tangle of rice noodles, bean sprouts, is a nice light way to begin your meal. Sadly, the tan tan men’s viscous red broth bear little trace of flavor other than a hint of heat.
What to eat: Pingtung embraces the small plate trend to the fullest, with its menu divided into eight categories, spanning cuisines form Taiwan, China, Japan, and Vietnam. The beef roll is a must, as are dim sum plates. Try crystal shrimp dumplings filled with shrimp and ginger and the braised tofu skin rolls ($5.50) packed with tofu, mushrooms, cilantro and whole baby shrimp. For dessert, Pingtung’s signature sweet flatbread ($4.95) is a flakey, deep-fried scallion pancake dough topped with a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream that’s best eaten with a fork and knife.
Where to sit: During lunch hours, opt for a sunny table by one of the front windows that open out to Melrose. For a slightly more upscale feel, during dinner service, snag a table on the back patio.
What to drink: Start with some bubbly—we like Nagatagawa sparkling nigori sake, then segue into a very dry sake like the Sho Chiku Bai Organic. Other options are a handful of Japanese beers, shochu, plus a short list of California red and white wines.
Conversation piece: Owner Li Ping named Pingtung after the city in which she was born, Pingtung, in southern Taiwan.