When the Eagle Rock outpost of the Oinkster opened in 2006, local fooderati obsessed over founder Andre Guerrero's signature ube milkshake, made from the delicious purple yam. Among his fast-casual restaurant's offerings of burgers, pastrami, pulled pork and roasted chicken, the shake was widely seen as a nod to Guerrero's Filipino heritage. It's hard to imagine now, but 11 years ago, food media wasn't clamoring to learn more about Filipino food. So why'd he add it to the menu?
"I thought about this neighborhood. There's a lot of Filipinos here, for one. Two, ube is delicious. I mean it's really good," Guerrero says. He says he knows "all the Filipino chefs" in town, but still, the response surprised him. "We put it on just to run as a special, and people went crazy. All the Filipinos were just calling up, and they're telling all their friends, 'Oh yeah, try this ube shake at the Oinkster. The chef is Filipino.'"
Guerrero, a cook and chef in Los Angeles for decades, is perhaps best known right now for the Oinkster and that shake. But back then, he didn't think the time was right to launch a full-fledged Filipino restaurants. He half-heartedly tried a couple of times and found the response to be "lukewarm."
Part of the problem, as he sees it, is the way that food media in the United States has approached Filipino food. "With Filipino food, for a long time — and this still happens now — when there's an opportunity to showcase it or talk about it, what do these journalists do? They try to sensationalize the weird shit, like the partially incubated duck egg. OK, you know what? Most of the Filipinos I know don't even eat that. But the way [the media] talk about it, the audience goes, 'Yuck. They eat partially incubated duck eggs and blood soup?' Now they sensationalize it and they've got the audience's attention, but in a very negative way. Why aren't you talking about the really delicious food that non-Filipinos would embrace and really love? Well, because it's not as interesting."
But as Guerrero sees it, it was only a matter of time before all of America embraced Filipino food, as Filipinos make up the second-largest Asian-American group in the country. He's proud of the chefs in the unofficial L.A. Filipino-American chefs group, called Barkada. Bold-faced names including Charles Olalia, Isa Fabro, Alvin Cailan and the Valencia brothers are associated with it — and Guerrero wouldn't mind seeing them trying out ever more traditional flavors and techniques.
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"I'm like the senior statesman in the group," he says. "I don't really hang out with them, because I'm like the old fogey. I mean, most of them are younger than my sons."
Though he is toying with the idea of trying out Filipino food commercially again, figuring out what kind of pop-up model makes the most sense, Guerrero's senior statesman role makes him more shepherd than chef in the Filipino food movement.
"I'm in a position where I can help people," he says. "I know my way around this industry. I know my way around the legal aspects, the economics, the financing of projects, and I'd love to see these guys really make a statement."
He then goes on to describe a Filipino pork shank recipe with soy sauce, sugar, dried banana blossoms and dried shrimp. He's probably not going to exit the kitchen anytime soon.