Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
In Search of Liou's Ark: Sticky rice with pork in bamboo at Liou's House
Liou's House is a distinctive Milpitas find for Chinese cuisine
By Stett Holbrook
A SHOPPING center next to a miniature golf course in Milpitas might seem like an unlikely place to find a classically trained Chinese chef, but that's the nature of good food in Silicon Valley—you come to expect it in the most unexpected places.
Until recently the best Chinese food wasn't found in China, but in neighboring Taiwan. Liou's House in Milpitas is one of the beneficiaries of that tradition.
Chinese food is one of the world's great cuisines, but in the years following Mao's communist revolution of 1949 the celebrated regional cuisines of China were driven underground. Opulent, intricately made food was considered decadent and bourgeois by the communists and many chefs were driven out of China for their counterrevolutionary culinary practices. The Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976 was a particularly bad time. The government closed down restaurants and many chefs fled for Taiwan. Although Chinese food in China is currently enjoying a renaissance, some of China's greatest chefs kept Chinese cuisine alive in Taiwan during the dark years.
James Liou was born in Taiwan in 1953 and trained under a master Hunan chef from China. He went on to cook in several top hotel restaurants in Taiwan, becoming the favorite chef of Taiwan's vice president and catering many government dinners.
His cooking skills then took him to Costa Rica where he served as the personal chef for Taiwan's ambassador. From there he landed in Los Altos where he cooked at Chef Chu's for 15 years, one of the Bay Area's most celebrated Chinese restaurants. Three years ago Liou and his family opened Liou's House, a modest-looking but delicious Chinese restaurant that deserves wide recognition.
In addition to the food, Liou's servers make the restaurant a standout, too. The place is popular with a Chinese and Taiwanese clientele but non-Chinese speakers are well taken care of. Liou's son Kent Liou is the restaurant's manager and he's very knowledgeable about his father's cooking since he grew up eating it, and he expresses his love for the food well. Relying on him or waiter Wally Wu for recommendations is a sure way to get a good meal.
Kent steered me toward the Chinese-style kung pao chicken ($9.25) and I'm still thinking about the dish. But first, an explanation. Chinese style? As opposed to what, Sri Lankan style? As opposed to American style, smart-ass. Unlike the saucy, sweetish, heavy coated chicken and stir-fried vegetables that have come to characterize this dish in America, the version here takes kung pao chicken back to its roots. It's made with nothing more than roasted peanuts, firecracker-red chile peppers and chunks of tender, lightly glazed chicken that pack a spicy and tangy flavor. The dish is like meat candy, it's so good, and was like tasting kung pao chicken for the first time.
Another great recommendation was the Hunan tofu ($6.95). Hunan food is a spicy but earthy style of cooking that's showcased here with thin slices of smoky smoked tofu and stir-fried vegetables. It's a simple (tasting) dish that really satisfies.
Since the Hunan style is chef Liou's specialty, I went for the prosaically named Hunan meat mixture ($8.25). The dish lives up to its fiery reputation. It is a delicious but incendiary jumble of sliced pork, bamboo shoots, onions and chile peppers.
Many of the dishes here are quite rich and hearty, so the Chinese celery with bean curd ($6.95)—thin sections of sautéed celery tossed with thin ribbons of tofu in a light and savory sauce—provided a mild counternote to some of the other more high-flying food. Go for the seasonal vegetables ($8.95), too, which during one of my visits were stir-fried pea greens. The emerald green leaves were tossed with garlic and so rich and velvety they tasted like they were cooked in butter.
Liou's has a list of specialty items that require advance ordering. They're labor-intensive meals best for large groups or banquets. My group of fellow diners wasn't quite so large but we went for a few of these dishes anyway. (They're listed on the "chef's special" menu but not translated into English; just ask and they'll tell you what the dishes are.)
We tried the stuffed duck ($30). Meat and bones are laboriously removed from a whole duck. The meat is then cooked with sticky rice and painstakingly stuffed back into the draping skin left behind so that the bird returns to its formerly plump shape. Just before serving the duck is lightly fried to give the skin a crisp texture and mahogany color. It's an overtly rich dish that's easy to fill up on, but it's another indication of the kitchen's skill.
In this land of shopping centers and strip malls, you've got to know where to look for good food that stands out from the mediocre mass. For excellent Chinese food via Taiwan, look no further than Liou's House.
Address: 1245 Jacklin Road, Milpitas.
Hours: 11am–2:30pm and 4:30–9:30pm Tue–Sun.
Price Range: Most dishes $8–$15 but several special items $19–$50.
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