Two lifelong friends hope to give back to the community by charming their tastebuds
By Blake Pinto
There are many ways to give back to a community. Charitable donations are a common route. Volunteering is always popular. But for local restaurateurs Paul Chang and Thomas Oushin, something different came to mind.
“We just wanted to bring great food to this community,” Chang said, one of the two new owners of Night Owl Cafe. “Around this area, as you can see, there is not a lot of restaurants. We wanted to help contribute in that way. So people could have something close with great food.”
So, in January, two men that have been friends for the past 33 years decided to buy a restaurant, rebrand it, and give it a shot.
“This is the mid-life crisis right here,” joked Chang. His light-hearted nature is essential for the task at hand, which will undoubtedly be filled with many challenges.
Currently, the main challenge is location. Great food means nothing if no one knows you’re serving it.
Tucked in a small shopping center at the intersection of El Monte Avenue and Las Tunas Drive, Night Owl Cafe can be difficult to find if you’re not searching for it; even then it’s not the easiest of tasks – just ask the contractors coming to install a new table top who drove past twice during our interview.
“I mean look,” Chang said with a laugh, gazing out the restaurant’s window to emphasize how concealed their location is. “There’s little foot traffic.”
However, for those able to find this gem treasures await. A completely redesigned interior greets patrons as they walk through the doors. Though room is limited, walls draped in the skylines of New York and Los Angeles deliver a deceptively spacious atmosphere. Oushin and Chang’s backgrounds in real estate and design have shown through as they transformed the inside from traditional cafe to a more modern feel.
Then there’s the food. The limited menu delivers strongly on three fronts – cheap, fresh, and delicious. There is nothing more than $10, and everything is purchased locally each morning.
“Everything we have is all about freshness,” said Oushin, Chang’s partner and self-taught chef. “We get fresh ingredients from local grocers nearly every single morning. Then we just improvise and try to keep it simple.”
The pair describes their cuisine as modern-Chinese/Asian-fusion. They take traditional concepts like Bao – a Taiwanese staple-food consisting of meat packed inside steamed white buns which the Huffington Post calls “the best sandwich you’ve never tried” – and take them to the next level. Their Baos combo serves up three of these warm pockets of heaven, filled with either pork belly, Peking duck, black-pepper steak, or beef shank. Each separate meat comes with its own special preparation and garnishes, like crushed peanuts and cilantro.
Hainan chicken is another menu favorite, which Oushin insists “is all about the preparation.” The chicken is poached and finished with garlic and ginger. They offer tuna and salmon sashimi as well, which they have turned into their own unique form of poke. For dessert, two favorites are the mango and coconut sorbets – both served inside an original shell.
Customers can wash down their meals with honey-green tea, lemon tea, milk tea, or iced coffee. They’re hoping to add beer and wine soon (they want to be a local night-spot after all), in addition to expanding their menu options to include Taiwanese sausage, crispy shrimp, and chicken wings.
For now, the pair of friends is content to take it one day at a time. Chang said that everything they’ve wanted to renovate is about “90 percent complete so far.” But in the restaurant business nothing is ever finished. Luckily, in 33 years together there isn’t much this pair hasn’t already been through together.
“He’s been trying to kill me for three decades,” Chang jokes about his partner. Oushin quips back, “He just won’t die.”
The pair laughs for a moment. Then it’s back to work. There’s no time to rest when chasing dreams.