“When I want to eat good Filipino food, I ask my mom to cook,” says Eric de la Cruz, chef and partner behind Oi! Asian Fusion. “But if I have to say restaurants I remember eating at when I was younger, it would have to be Jollibee and Nipa Hut.”
“It was all about lechon! Going to Le Grande in West Covina, getting drunk, singing karaoke, eating lechon and crispy pata,” says Alvin Cailan, chef and curator of the former Unit 120 restaurant incubator, fondly recalling the perfect roast suckling pig and reminiscing about his gluttonous college years.
“Also, Jeepney Grill in K-Town back in the '80s and '90s was the first Filipino restaurant I remember eating at and I loved it. There was a colorful jeepney in the middle of the dining room. Everything was served family-style,” adds Cailan.
Chase Valencia, the front of the house face for the Valencia brother team at LASA, a modern Filipino restaurant, grew up with a very specific style of Filipino restaurant prevalent in Los Angeles. “It was the turo-turo spots, where you point at what you want on the buffet.” Hence, the name turo-turo, which translates to “point-point” in Tagalog.
As Filipino chefs draw upon their own food nostalgia to feed their culinary passions, it increases their presence in the cultural landscape of Los Angeles. Although great strides have been made, the question remains: How and when will Filipino food become part of the mainstream U.S. culinary scene?
For these chefs, arguably some of the first ones in L.A. to successfully take Filipino food to the next evolutionary step, beyond the buffet steam tables of the casual turo-turo or staples of traditional Filipino restaurants in which they grew up dining, memories of this food from their youth act both as inspiration and jumping off point.
“The fact that we are having a conversation about this is huge,” says Charles Olalia, chef and owner of RiceBar. “People are talking about it. I feel that it's always been around, now the general public is just a tad bit more curious.”
For any type of cuisine, support from the community is critical not only to realize the grander goal of gaining mainstream acceptance but to simply keep the business afloat. However, when that genre of food is less understood to the broader audience, as is the case with Filipino fare, it’s even more urgent to have the home team on board and enthusiastically eating the food.
“Our community must support us first. If my mom or aunt doesn’t vouch for my food, if they talk shit about our food, there’s no way we’ll ever grow,” said Cailan. “We have all the talent in the world. The best restaurants in the city have Filipino chefs. All the Filipino concepts around L.A., we all know each other. If the community doesn’t support us, that’s as far as we’re gonna get.”
Kristine de la Cruz, owner of FrankieLucy Bakeshop, recalled, “In the past, not much support came from the Filipino community for new Filipino restaurants, unless you had some influence or connection to the community already or a ton of cash for working capital. Even then, there was this undercurrent from my parents' generation, immigrant Filipinos, that had a 'wait and see' attitude towards entrepreneurs.”
Unfortunately, this meant a lot of restaurants shuttered before really making their mark.
Noi and Yi Cuisine, two Filipino restaurants in L.A. that first attempted to take the leap from casual to upscale back in the last decade, never cultivated a following and were restaurant casualties in under a year.
In a Los Angeles Times interview in 2010, Rodelio Aglibot, chef at the shuttered Yi Cuisine said, “I don’t sous-vide my pork belly. It’s got to be close to its roots, or else it’s something else.” This is in marked contrast to Cailan’s belief that all modern chefs serving Filipino food today must necessarily be making fusion “because of the technique behind the cooking.” He continues, “It’s always a debate. I’ll make an adobo with pork belly. I sous-vide it for four to eight hours, chop it up, toss it in a wok, make an adobo sauce on the side, mount it with a little bit of butter and flour, French style, and then feed it to my brother, and he’ll say that it’s the most amazing adobo he’s ever had. Then, I’ll give it to my mom, and she’ll say, ‘That’s not adobo.’”
“It’s a constant struggle with old school Filipinos who come in and say, ‘This is Filipino food because it tastes like Filipino food but there’s something different about it. It’s weird. It’s not what we’re used to.’ And it’s literally because we’re using proper technique.”
Valencia believes a significant step in the cuisine's establishment in the U.S. was skipped, and there needs to be a return to basics. He explained, “In terms of trajectory, we’re [Filipino restaurants] just getting started. And so what we need to do is broaden the Filipino food experience so people get a better understanding of what Filipino cuisine is. You look at Japanese and everyone knows ramen, sushi, izakaya. They’re the sub-genres, if you will. Now, look at Thai, you have Northern and Southern specialties. We are not even close. Regional styles, various flavor profiles, that needs to happen to Filipino food.”
If Valencia believes the way to continue the evolution of Filipino cuisine is by circling back and rolling out restaurants and menus that emphasize distinct territorial flavors as demonstrated over the decades with Chinese food and its multitude of styles and tastes of various provincial provenance, then this collective of L.A. Filipino chefs, informally known as Barkada LA on Instagram, represents that ambition.
“In L.A., we really love our diversity,” said Isa Fabro, a pastry chef affiliated with LASA and Filipino food pop-ups around town. “People who eat out want to know where food is from. You know, like this is Sichuan, not Cantonese. We’re starting to educate diners on where we’re from in the Philippines. I’m from Ilocano. Chase and Chad are from Pampanga. Alvin’s family is from Cavite.”
“Right now we’re starting to develop personal characteristics in our food. Because of the current food movement and because of our passion for Filipino food, people want sinigang (a tamarind soup),” says Cailan. “They want LASA’s arroz caldo (rice porridge) with duck confit. They want the arroz caldo that me and Charles Olalia made for L.A. Food & Wine that people called Filipino risotto. Longanisa right now has become the hottest thing. Other chefs are making Filipino sausage because they’re enamored with the sweet and savoriness of longanisa.”
Non-Filipino chefs expressing interest are additional pieces to the puzzle on how to further the cuisine. Cailan says, “Jeremy Fox did a calamansi koshu [a chutney-like condiment]. Otium has a kinilaw (Filipino ceviche). I get direct messages from buddies in Cleveland asking me for recipes. We did a crab fat sauce and our colleagues in the industry are asking about this. Michael Cimarusti came through Unit 120.”
Cailan notes, “We’re evolving, though at first when I started making Filipino food, I was hesitant to use the funky, fermented stuff. People would ask, ‘What about shrimp paste?’ And three years ago, I wouldn’t touch it. Just because I didn’t want to scare people off. Now people keep coming back. We’ll serve chimichurri and add shrimp paste to it.”
All of the chefs agree that many more people, at least in the big cities, know about Filipino food than in the past. However, their thoughts vary on what that defining moment will be when Filipino cuisine finally hits prime time.
“When you’re watching 'Modern Family,' and they’re at a Filipino restaurant, then we’re there,” said Cailan. But for Kristine de la Cruz crossing over means “when you see non-Filipinos opening Filipino restaurants. I don't think that's a bad thing or appropriation; I think it's recognition of fantastic eats and wanting to build a business around it.” While Justin Foronda of Benaddictz feels recognition from the food glitterati is the ultimate accomplishment. “Michelin stars wouldn’t hurt.”