Sunday, May 31

Alum transforms Top Leaf into L Kitchen with artistic, flavorful food

UCLA alumna Mia Lin Pan will open her own restaurant, L Kitchen, in Westwood on Wednesday after cooking for friends' events and helping another restaurant develop its taste. (Erin Gong/Daily Bruin)

Mia Lin Pan didn’t know how to cook before she came to America.

About four years after leaving China to attend UCLA, she opened her first restaurant, L Kitchen, which will have its grand opening in Westwood on Wednesday.

Pan said her passion for learning how to cook came from a nostalgia for the flavors of China. She found Western food like hamburgers too oily and lacking in vegetables. As a result, Pan began cooking simple recipes like noodles. During her first year of practice, her food turned out salty, burned or over-sauced.

“When I started, I just tried every recipe I could to see if I would like the taste,” Pan said. “The second year, I asked my roommates to try my food again and they agreed because it smelled so good, but that first year they didn’t want to try anything!”

Pan started with common ingredients such as sausages and vegetables, which she bought at Korean markets and boiled in water. While living in an apartment as a freshman, she tried experimenting with meats and sauces, and her roommate taught her some Korean recipes and cooking styles that Pan combined with familiar Chinese dishes.

[Related: Nurse, entrepreneur brings new spin on Taiwanese dessert to Westwood]

The food she cooked at first, such as eggs, hot dogs and vegetable noodles, was not visually appealing but tasted good. However, her later dishes dealt more with making the food look artistic, like creating a Christmas tree out of pretzels and salad.

“The kitchen is kind of my lab; I love to try new things when I get fresh ingredients,” Pan said. “I experiment every day.

Pan’s friends asked her to cook for parties in 2014. The owner of the Westwood restaurant Top Leaf, who had been referred by mutual friends and had seen pictures of Pan’s food on Facebook, contacted Pan to help fix some of the issues his restaurant was facing. The restaurant’s food was either too sweet or too spicy and not satisfying for the price, Pan said.

She entered negotiations for half a year with the owner of Top Leaf, who wanted her recipes and advice on how to adjust the taste of some of his menu items such as the mapo tofu. After the old owner of Top Leaf returned to China in 2015, Pan took over as the owner and rebranded the restaurant as L Kitchen.

[Related: UCLA alum, students open Chinese restaurant Top Leaf in Westwood]

Store manager Christopher Lopez said Pan’s presence and energy are a great improvement to the restaurant.

“Having someone around that I can communicate with on a daily basis is really great,” Lopez said. “She also brings in a lot of people who haven’t tried the restaurant yet or people who are maybe just looking to see what our changes are.”

Part of Pan’s rebrand for L Kitchen was to redo the menu of Top Leaf to reflect her cooking style and original recipes. For example, Pan created the recipes for pork hock, spicy noodles and tangsuyuk – sweet and spicy pork by combining Korean and Chinese cooking styles.

Rather than completely scrapping the old menu, Pan also opted to keep the most popular options from Top Leaf’s menu.

“One of the things she did was bring back the bao buns, which were one of our key items, even though it’s not the most expensive item we have,” Lopez said. “It doesn’t bring in that much money, but it does bring in people since baos aren’t something you can typically find around Westwood.”

[Related: Flavors of Westwood: Alumni brothers share a taste of home through family business]

Maria Micelles, a UCLA Extension employee, said she came to L Kitchen because she was familiar with many of the items from the old menu, but she is excited to try out the restaurant’s new options.

“I feel like this is more authentic compared to many Asian restaurants, so I came because it has more of the authentic homey feel,” Micelles said.

Pan said she is excited to learn every day and keep her passion for cooking alive at her first restaurant, she said.

“If I can help make this restaurant become popular in Westwood, then I can start my own business anywhere and succeed,” Pan said.

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