Far from her Fox Park storefront and well before word of her dumplings spread throughout Soulard Market, Lona Luo was hard at work honing her craft in remote southwestern China. Distance-wise, it's about as far away as you can get from her south-city restaurant Lona's Lil Eats (2199 California Avenue; 314-925-8939), though you'd never know this from tasting the food.
Luo was born and raised in a tiny Chinese village that identifies more with Burma than Beijing. Her mother is Thai, her father is from the Luo Luo ethnic minority group, and the area's cuisine draws influence from Thailand, Laos, Burma and Vietnam. Luo started cooking for her family at an early age, learning to incorporate this kaleidoscope of flavors with her tribe's barbecue culture. Throw in her time spent cooking at a Japanese restaurant in her provincial capital, and it's no wonder that Lou's cooking is difficult to categorize. She calls it "hill tribe food." Others have termed it "Asian soul food." Yahoo news calls it the best Chinese food in Missouri.
Luo took a break from making her signature dumplings to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food scene, the prized possession that reminds her of home, and her pungent guilty pleasure.
What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? I don't only cook. I love farming and raising animals.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? I check my plants and gardens and give them water.
What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? Neighborhood places you can walk to are popping more and more. That's how we made it -- thanks to the neighborhood.
Who or what is your St. Louis food crush? Cafe Natasha's steak kebab.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Spices from the trees in my village.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' culinary climate, what would you say? Everyone is scrambling to get better because the people demand it. People travel so much now, and they know how good food can be. They want that, and cooks like me try to make the mark.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. MSG. It destroys all balance and turns people to dogs. [Editor's note: Luo is hinting at research that links MSG to an increase in appetite.]
What is your after-work hangout? Upstairs, sitting on a little stool that was a baby gift for my son. It reminds me of being home in my village and stretches my back.
What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? My husband's punch and fresh durian fruit.
What would be your last meal on earth? My parents' duck, stewed with smoked pork, and a side of fresh Sapi. Sapi is spicy beef innards salad -- so delicious, and it's only made one time a year.
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