Purity and Eccentricity at Kato

By Caroline Hatchett | Will Blunt

By

Caroline Hatchett
Will Blunt
Kohlrabi, Albacore, Pickled Celery, Soy Vinaigrette, and Peppercorns
Kohlrabi, Albacore, Pickled Celery, Soy Vinaigrette, and Peppercorns

Jonathan Yao opened Kato on a Tuesday—in a tight corner of a strip mall in Sawtelle. No one came. On Thursday, someone from Eater called, and thus began the reservation slam. “Thank God for Eater,” says Yao.

Kato is an improbable success. Yao’s parents wanted to open a traditional Taiwanese restaurant, and he convinced them—after a series of stages in L.A. and San Francisco—that he could run it. Instead, he turned the restaurant into a seafood-centric, tasting-menu spot that also happens to serve outrageous fried chicken sandwiches and two rice bowls (because, well, rice!). There’s also no liquor license, and he doesn’t allow BYOB.

The people, they come and they love Kato unconditionally. Yao’s cooking is original, and just like his restaurant, it’s unencumbered by the litany of rules most cooks adopt over years and years of training. Aside from those stages, Yao has only his palate and preferences to guide him. “I for sure don’t have a mentor,” he says, though his parents (in particular his father) influenced his tastes. “My parents are both Taiwanese, but, growing up, we ate lots of Hunan and Szechuan food.”

Yao translated one of his favorite Szechuan dishes, husband and wife special into a mysteriously plated, unusual, and addictive seafood tartare for Kato’s menu. He spikes chopped albacore tuna with black vinegar, soy, pickled celery, and Szechuan peppercorns. Somehow, the albacore flavor shines through the mala tingle and all those aggressive flavors. It’s an improbable, memorable success.
 

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