After returning to the United States following a trip to Taiwan, Alex Karpets and Shirley Yang scoured Austin for authentic Taiwanese food. When they couldn’t find any, they decided to fill the void in their stomachs and the community themselves.
Karpets and Yang never planned to own a food truck. Before opening Song La behind the University Co-op, they taught English and started a band together, but discovered their true calling was in the food industry.
“We went to Taiwan two years ago,” Karpets. “That was my first time back. I was like ‘Man! This is such good food!’ Austin’s a big city and growing really fast, but I was really surprised that there was no good, real Taiwanese food here.”
Yang, whose family lives in Taiwan, understands the deep cultural significance that food holds in Taiwanese culture. She and Karpets, both UTSA alumni who have been dating since 2010, want to stick to the original flavors of Taiwanese food while also trying to showcase the diverse regional dishes of the country.
“I went to morning markets, night markets, aunties [and] uncles to ask for recipes,” Yang said. “That’s the main thing we wanted when we went back to Taiwan — to try food. For instance, pork belly tastes different in the North than it does in the South. We had to try everything and find a balance.”
Although Yang said they realize Taiwanese food is very different from what most Texans are used to, they are adamant about sticking to their original recipes.
“I feel that a lot of places try to compromise with American tastes, so they slowly change their flavor,” Yang said. “Of course the main target should be Americans, but I want everyone to [keep] the authentic Taiwanese flavor. I feel really confident that Taiwanese food is good, so I don’t want to change it because that’s how we eat it.”
For some UT students, Song La is a welcomed reminder of their home and culture. English senior Janice Poe, who lived in Taipei, Tawaian, from 2012 to 2014, said she missed the homey flavors of braised pork rice, also known as lu rou fan — one of Song La’s signature dishes.
“When I saw that there was a Taiwanese food truck near campus that served lu rou fan, I knew I had to try it,” Poe said. “Song La is doing a great service to Austin’s food scene by introducing something authentically Taiwanese.”
Karpets and Yang are also committed to making all of their menu items in-house and is as authentic as Karpets and Yang can manage with ingredients from Texas. Yang said one of the most difficult dishes to prepare is the pork belly bun.
“Everything takes time and labor,” Yang said. “If we don’t see the good portion of the fat and meat in the pork belly, I’d rather not sell it. We like to maintain our quality.”
Karpets and Yang are also dedicated to following one of the main pillars of Taiwanese food — hospitality. Some students frequent the truck so often they call Yang “a yi” or “auntie,” although she said she is only about 12 years older than most.
“We try to focus on the kids, the students here. That’s my main goal,” Yang said. “I see them grow [and] sometimes they bring their new girlfriends — I feel like a mom. We treat them like family.”