Hungry for love: is Los Angeles falling for Filipino food?
The city's Filipino community knows its food is dynamic, exciting, and delicious; others are starting to catch on
Every winter, US food writers compile their predictions for food trends in the coming year – and every year at least a few of those lists mention Filipino food. Without fail, the ways are enumerated in which it might be considered the perfect cuisine: the Philippines’ unique attributes as a culinary melting pot of Spanish, American and Chinese influences; the country’s access to abundant tropical ingredients; its ability to present exciting new flavors — ginataang langka! — alongside universally-loved comfort foods such as adobo and fried pork.
Finally, they announce – the scribes – that thanks to a few young hotshot chefs and a growing interest in “international” foods, the Philippines’ time has finally come. And then, inevitably, they forget all about Filipino food, until next year.
The winter just finished was no different, but Los Angeles’ Filipino community — one of the largest outside of the Philippines, with a population estimated at around 600,000 — hadn’t been getting its hopes up. It’s not that they think the modern Filipino food scene in Los Angeles isn’t dynamic, exciting, and delicious (they most certainly do); it’s just that they have become used to their contributions to their city’s cultural identity being glossed over.
Look at some of the city’s defining historical moments in the struggle for racial equality, workers’ rights and immigrant rights, and Filipinos have been there on the frontlines. Look at the city’s culture, the way it eats, and dresses, and talks, even the way it plays sports, and you’ll find Filipino visionaries and trendsetters.
“There were Filipinos at the founding of Los Angeles City so we’ve been here since the very beginning,” says Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center in Historic Filipinotown. “Still,” she is adamant, “the Filipino influence isn’t known or recognized.”
Even Historic Filipinotown, the community’s symbolic heart, is a symbol of displacement and resilience. Filipinos first settled in Los Angeles in the area around today’s Little Tokyo – but they were driven out by a development boom. From there, they settled around modern Bunker Hill – but again they were displaced by development, before ultimately settling in the area between Echo Park, Westlake, and Rampart Village in the 1950s. This area was only officially designated Historic Filipinotown in 2011.
The Filipino paradox, of being vital to the soul of Los Angeles, and still somehow outside of the city’s mainline conversation means that Filipino cuisine remains one of its best-kept and most delicious secrets.
Unlike other ethnic enclaves where populations center in one or two
areas, the Filipino community is in fact spread out all over Los Angeles and the surrounding counties — and the rest of the country for that matter. That, and the sheer number of Filipinos in the region, means Southern California abounds with delicious Filipino food of every kind.
The modern culinary landscape of Filipino Los Angeles is increasingly bifurcated. On the one hand are a multitude of older, often more traditional eateries. These run the gamut from all-you-can-eat buffets and lines of chafing dishes in Filipino markets, to celebrated destination restaurants, but all offer more old-school, time-honored fare from the mother country.
On the other hand, there is the new wave of Filipino restaurants. These places tend to inhabit trendier addresses — Chinatown, Grand Central Market, Downtown LA — that match their hipper modern décor and fondness for food trends like local sustainable produce and seasonality. And it is these restaurants – places such as LASA, Ricebar, and Sari Sari Store – that have come to define the conversation around Filipino food in the city.
Chefs like Margarita Manzke of Sari Sari are typical of a new generation of Filipino chefs and restaurateurs pushing the cuisine forward. Mazke was born in the Philippines but moved to New York, where she attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, before relocating to Los Angeles to work at powerhouse restaurants including Spago.
Since opening eight months ago in the buzzy Grand Central Market, Manzke’s restaurant (Sari Sari Store) has offered an all-day Californian take on silog, a popular breakfast in the Philippines that combines a protein with garlic fried rice and a fried egg.
Manzke says the inspiration behind the restaurant is a simple one: “The idea was that I could cook the food that I want, the food that I grew up on, and could introduce Filipino food to other people.”
Like many, she laments that in Los Angeles Filipino food is “not known” and “not popular,” and that people “have no clue what it is.” But she thinks her rice bowls are a great place to start: “This is just a small part of Filipino cuisine but an approachable one, and a good introduction.”
Her approach seems to be working: one of her earliest and most ardent fans is the cultishly-revered food writer Johnathan Gold, food critic of the Los Angeles Times.
Another restaurant that is getting a lot of attention manages to exist in an area between the old and the new schools. The Park’s Finest is a barbeque joint in Historic Filipinotown that would be as unfamiliar to any American barbeque purist as it would be to a diner visiting from
Manila. That said, local boys like Johneric Concordia, its founder, tend to feel right at home.
Concordia serves up dishes straight from his Filipino Los Angelino childhood, born from both scarcity and unshakable values of hospitality and community. “In our family, what we were known for and what we take pride in is being able to cook, being able to feed not just our family but our neighbors and friends,” says Concordia. “That’s one of the things of being from a working-class community: if you don’t have very much to offer you can at least offer a meal.”
His locally famous Mama Leah’s coconut beef is a dish straight from his mother’s childhood on the southeast coast of Luzon, where coconuts are plentiful, but one that also reflects her Seventh Day Adventist faith and its taboo against eating pork.
Meanwhile, Timuy Tri-Tip owes as much to Santa Maria-style barbeque, albeit with Filipino-inspired spice rub, as it is does to Concordia’s father’s abiding love of American fast-food. The horse-radish crema served on the side is a homage to his Latin-American neighbors’ beloved condiment – and to his father’s propensity to hoard Arby’s “horsey sauce.” Even the ubiquitous peppers at Park’s are of the type familiar to any California fast-food fan — the pickled yellow peppers served at In-n-Out burger, which his mother would bring home to stash in the family pickle jar.
“Kids that grew up here, we didn’t go on summer vacations; many of us didn’t even have spring break. None of the things you would see in classic American movies,” says Concordia, remembering leaner times. “What we did have was house parties, what we did have was barbeques. Our ability to bring whatever cut was available in supermarkets and add the flavor profile that we as Filipinos enjoy.”
What unites Los Angeles’ disparate and diverse Filipino dining options is what unites the Filipino people all over the world: their generosity. For Filipinos, hospitality is a deeply ingrained value, one that most commonly expresses itself through food.
“When we say, ‘have you eaten yet?’,” explains Concordia, “what we’re really saying is ‘I love you.’”
The golden age of Filipino cuisine in Los Angeles: where to get a taste for it
This “Filipino-inspired, California-influenced restaurant” by Filipino American brothers Chad and Chase Valencia is one of the best examples of modern, casual California-Filipino fare in the whole state.
727 N Broadway #120, Los Angeles, CA 90012, Tel: +1-213- 443-6163
This contemporary, tiny but trendy Filipino downtown spot is often credited with starting the craze for modern Filipino food in Los Angeles.
419 W 7th St, Los Angeles, CA 90014, Tel: +1-213- 807-5341
Sari Sari Store
This Grand Central Market fixture and Jonathan Gold favorite is the place to try a decadent Filipino rice bowl. Just save room for dessert: their take on halo-halo is the perfect synthesis of California and the Philippines.
317 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013, Tel: +1-323- 320-4020
The Park’s Finest
This neighborhood stable serves up awesome backyard-style barbeque. Don’t miss the coconut beef, the hot link medley of smoked, sliced spicy sausages with sweet Filipino longanisa, and Ann’s cornbread bibinka. An only-in-LA Filipino experience.
1267 W Temple St, Los Angeles, CA 90026, Tel: +1-213- 481-2800
La Rose Cafe
A great date spot, with Filipino décor and live music. This is a much-loved restaurant among the Filipino community. Don’t visit without trying the empanadas, the kare kare, and the mango and ube cheese rolls.
4749 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029, Tel:+1-323- 662-4024
Max’s of Manila
This destination restaurant in Glendale is famous across southern California for its Filipino fried chicken — served with banana ketchup, of course. But we also love the bulalo soup, and especially the crispy pata, or deep fried pork knuckle.
313 W Broadway, Glendale, CA 91204, Tel: +1-818- 637-7751
People flock from all over to this cramped market in Historic Filipinotown to get the area’s most authentic — and delicious — Filipino barbeque and isaw, or grilled intestine. Anything you can skewer and cook over charcoals, they serve at Dollar Hits. The best value around.
2422 W Temple St, Los Angeles, CA 90026, Tel: +1213-399- 3160
White Rabbit Food Truck
It doesn’t get more Southern Californian than this. Excellent Filipino tacos and burritos served in the most Los Angeles mode of all: by food truck. Try yours with adobo, bistek, or (our favorite sisig) tart, spicy sizzling pig parts.
www.whiterabbittruck.com, Tel: +1-888- 907-2248
Kapistahan is the place to celebrate special occasions the Filipino way. It serves classic dishes in a refined setting complete with karaoke and live music. If you’ve never experienced a kamayan feast — food served on banana leaves and eaten by hand — you should, and Kapistahan is the place to do it.
1925, STE 103, W Temple St, Los Angeles, CA 90026, Tel:+1-213- 484-2660
Mama Leah’s Candy Chicken Drummettes – by The Park’s Finest owner Johneric Concordia
“Mom would take a drummette, season it with salt and pepper, slice the narrow end clean, and proceed to pull the chicken meat to create a lollipop chicken wing. Then she’d hit it with seasoned flour, shake, fry, and drizzle it with a sweet soy candy sauce. After all that work, she would place a batch on the table, turn around to grab some water, and see those meat-head boys of hers annihilate a popper bite. She couldn’t stand them for not appreciating her food by taking their time, so she made them non-lollipop from that moment on. We salute all the mamas who made this for their ungrateful kids.”
We fry this version for 10 minutes (to get them nice and crispy), then bake at 225 for 30 to get them tender.
5lbs chicken drummettes (approx 20 pieces)
4oz pink Himalayan salt
4oz fresh ground pepper black
4oz fresh ground pepper white
1oz red chili flakes
1 cup olive oil
4oz garlic powder
4oz onion powder
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup powder sugar
Letting the knife do the work, hold the thick end of the drummette and cut the muscle joint at the opposite end. Once cleared to the bone, repeat steps and place on flat surface to be seasoned.
Drizzle chicken with olive oil and proceed to season with 1oz pink Himalayan salt, 1oz fresh black ground pepper, 1oz fresh white ground pepper, 1oz red chili flakes, 1oz garlic powder, and 1oz onion powder.
Proceed to pull separated tissue toward thick joint till it pops into a lollipop shape and repeat the seasoning step.
Stir remaining dry seasoning with four cups of flour and lightly bread drummettes.
Deep fry for 7-10 minutes until beautiful golden brown, drain, and tray in baking pan to oven bake for additional 20 minutes at 225 degrees.
Make “Candy Soy Sauce” by combining 1 1/2 cups hot water, 1 cup soy sauce, 1 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup powder sugar. Drizzle sauce over wings while they are still hot.