LA’s Filipino Foodscape

Spring 2018
Chengcheng Zhang

Filipino food is a bit of a puzzle, both to people who grew up eating it and those unfamiliar with what it has to offer. It is influenced by the nation’s history of colonialism; many cuisines have amalgamated seamlessly into modern Filipino food.

Today, hallmarks of Filipino food in the United States include Jollibee’s Filipino fried chicken, ensaymada (sweet brioche covered in cheese) from Red Ribbon Bakeshop or frozen, cured bangus (milkfish) from the grocery chain Seafood City Supermarket.

But none of these foods alone can encapsulate the culture’s diversity, nor have they widely captured the attention of non-Filipino customers. With few exceptions, many old-school Filipino restaurants are traditional sit-down family restaurants or buffet-style turo-turo, a shorthand for a popular type of Filipino restaurant that translates to “point-point,” referring to the way customers point to their selections.

New offerings are appearing increasingly often and tend to take the form of pop-ups, food trucks and casual dining options. These restaurants usually present a very polished and approachable aesthetic, inviting non-Filipino diners to regularly enjoy the cuisine. At the heart of each of these restaurants, though, is an opportunity for members of the Filipino community to see themselves represented outside the familiarity of home.

Filipino food has undeniably been on the rise in Los Angeles over the past two years as restaurants such as Sari Sari Store have earned praise from critics and the Filipino community alike. The Grand Central Market food stall styles itself after the Philippine corner stores, with its false corrugated steel roof and familiar Filipino products like Skyflakes and Spam lining its shelves.

It makes sense: Los Angeles County hosts the largest number of Filipino-Americans in the United States and the largest concentration of Filipinos outside Manila. Yet while suburbs like Glendale and Carson have long been known as hubs of Filipino-American culture, its presence in the mainstream is novel.

UCLA alumnus A.J. Calomay said he thinks widespread recognition of Filipino food has been long overdue in the U.S. He is currently working on a sequel to the 2003 film “Lumpia,” titled after the Filipino eggroll made with brown crepe paper that its hero absurdly wields. “Filipinos have been working in kitchens for decades,” Calomay said. “There’s this collective feeling that we’re not trying to hide our food anymore. It’s damn good.”

Jay Baluyot, co-owner of Filipino tapas restaurant Barkada, sees the process of modernizing Filipino foods as a form of expansion instead of evolution. Rather than seeing the existing Filipino food community as outdated, Baluyot believes newer Filipino restaurants can act as gateways to more traditional restaurants.

“Other restaurants are not our competition,” Baluyot said. “The whole thought is wanting to build together, that’s the only way to get our culture on the map.”

More than representation, Filipino businesses are an investment in a community that is due space in both the physical makeup of LA’s geography and its social consciousness.

“People are saying it’s (Filipinos’) time,” Baluyot said. “My response is, ‘It’s about time.’” Here’s a snapshot of what some of Los Angeles’ newer Filipino restaurants have to offer.

Neri’s Casual Filipino Dining

Michael Zshornack
/ daily bruin

The Koreatown restaurant might be better known for its previous iteration, Neri’s, in Westlake. Neri Seneres, the business’ namesake, co-owner and executive chef, founded it about 30 years ago as a turo-turo restaurant. The original location on 6th Street and Occidental Boulevard was just a couple blocks southeast of Historic Filipinotown. It closed about two years ago when her landlord declined to renew her lease and instead rented the space out to a Starbucks, Seneres said.

Initially, she was unsure whether she would reopen as she and her husband, both accountants who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1967, were able to retire. However, customers’ requests and her desire to interact with the community motivated her to rethink the business and reopen after her niece found a new location.

“When you’re retired, what are you going to do? Watch TV?” Seneres said. “Here, you meet people, you talk to people. When I go to other places, they know me and recognize me because I’ve been in business more than 30 years.”

Instead of using the same fast-food approach as her previous business, Seneres decided a casual dining approach would result in a fresher product and fewer wasted leftovers. The recipes, which are a mix of her mother’s technique and her own inventions, are rooted in the flavors of the Tagalog region of the Philippines.

The Koreatown location, which has been open for almost two years, mixes traditional and modern decor. Customers order food at the register, greeted by a waving Lucky Cat and an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Behind them, wall art lists Filipino dishes in different fonts: crispy pata, lechon kawali and bistek tagalog.

Seneres’ chicken adobo, a mainstay of Filipino cooking, hits your tongue with a sharp vinegar tang before melding into sweet and salty soy. The lechon kawali is deep-fried pork belly – layers of dehydrated and silky fat are subsumed by crispy, firm skin.

Neri’s casual dining label might have changed the format, but the food is still rich, comforting and familiar.

Big Boi

Chengcheng Zhang
/ daily bruin

Big Boi, a recent addition to the Asian food oasis of Sawtelle Japantown, stems from the same culinary mind behind B Sweet Dessert Bar. The latter specializes in bread pudding and features Filipino desserts like halo-halo, a refreshing blend of milk, crushed ice and sweet toppings, all crowned with a scoop of ube ice cream.

Chef Barbara “Barb” Batiste started the brick and mortar B Sweet after the original food truck’s success. Its popularity has enabled her to create Big Boi, a Filipino restaurant aiming to share traditional food in a healthier way.

The restaurant honors Batiste’s father, who was called Boi, a common Filipino nickname. When he was 43, he had a massive heart attack.

“My mom said, ‘Okay, that’s it,’ because you know Filipino food has a lot of fat and oils in it,” Batiste said. “So she made dishes leaner so he could continue to eat it without sacrificing the flavor.”

Batiste blends her mother’s heart-friendly techniques seamlessly into the traditional Filipino flavors, so much so it’s difficult to believe there’s any less fat, salt, or any of the other diet-killing macronutrients Filipino food is traditionally packed with.

The difference is clearest in Batiste’s lumpia shanghai. The already-small egg rolls have a little less heft than the versions you’ll find in other restaurants or the freezer aisle of Filipino grocery stores. The crunch and flavor is there, but the experienced lumpia eater may miss that wave of unctuousness coating the tongue. Batiste’s lumpia is testament to the infinite modifications that can be made to a dish while maintaining its identity.

As time has passed since the restaurant’s opening earlier this year, Chef Barb’s menu has evolved to include classics such as Filipino-style spaghetti, which uses a sweeter bolognese tossed with hot dogs and topped with shredded yellow cheddar. The heart of the menu lies in the entrees, which can be purchased by themselves or as a combo with white rice, garlic rice or pancit – a Filipino noodle dish traditionally prepared a number of ways. The latter two are the obvious choices – go with the garlic rice for a savory canvas that will not only soak up any sauces from your entree, but impart a deeper, almost nutty flavor to them, and go with the pancit for a hearty mix of noodles and vegetables that’ll add complexity to the meal through texture.

Batiste’s pork sisig is delightfully rendered and a drizzle of spicy mayo gives the dish an extra kick and disguises any missing fat that has been sacrificed in the process of making it healthier. Her chicken adobo uses both white and dark meat, but is delicately flavored in a way that makes you suspect Batiste has cranked down the intensity of the soy sauce and vinegar, compared to other chefs, in favor of marinating the meat so deeply that the flavors are still undeniably there.

Chengcheng Zhang
/ daily bruin

Don’t be surprised if there is no space for dessert after you’ve dined at Big Boi, but don’t let the satisfaction stop you from picking up a small jar of ube butter. The bright purple spread is creamy and sweet, yet also earthy and may help stave off any Filipino food cravings you have later.

Barkada

Michael Zshornack
/ daily bruin

At first glance, you might confuse Barkada for any other Hollywood lounge, until you realize the majority of the fusion-based menu is loaded with Filipino influence. While the restaurant is still waiting on its liquor license, its small-plates approach mimics pulutan – a greasy, comforting food which usually accompanies a good stiff drink.

For this reason, the name “Barkada” might seem like some hip vamping on the word “bar,” when it simply means a group of friends, a clique or a community in Tagalog.

“We’ve always been left out of that dialogue of, ‘Where do you want to go eat tonight? Do you want Korean? Mexican? Thai?’” said founder Paul Montoya. “We’re not just a novelty.”

Montoya and his business partner Jay Baluyot hope to attract a larger crowd by using the best ingredients and offering a menu designed to be sampled. This approach shies away from the traditional preparation of Filipino food that’s made in large quantities using cheaper ingredients.

Montoya acknowledged the small-plates menu is unpopular with some traditional Filipino diners who question the portion sizes and higher cost, but believes his decision is a compromise that will attract Filipino and non-Filipino diners alike by allowing them to try many different plates at once.

Three quintessentially Filipino dishes – adobo, mechado and kare kare – are transformed in Barkada’s short rib trifecta. Each bite is silky and tender, regardless of the preparation. The adobo is imbued with the sweet-sour sauce, emphasizing the vinegar’s tartness to counterbalance the meat’s richness. The tomato-based mechado is subtly sweet and almost melts on the tongue.

Yet it’s the kare kare, a peanut cream-laden stew, that speaks truest to Montoya and Baluyot’s goal of popularizing Filipino cuisine. The strong peanut butter taste might surprise newcomers but pairs nicely with the short rib in a way that might be less intimidating than traditional preparations of kare kare using tripe or oxtail.

Other dishes combine different Filipino dishes in an inventive way. Lumpia, for instance, comes two ways at Barkada.

Michael Zshornack
/ daily bruin

Their Lola’s Lumpia, filled with a comforting pork and vegetable mixture, tastes as though a Filipino grandmother sat in the kitchen and hand-wrapped them herself. The sisig lumpia, on the other hand, is filled with sauteed pork and seasoned with peppers and calamansi, a Philippine lemon. The result is a spicy, tangy and refreshing eggroll that could quickly become addicting.

These recipes are a mixture of family and chef-created ideas, heavily inspired by the pair’s upbringing in Los Angeles. While Barkada’s menu emphasizes Filipino flavors, influences from many cuisines run through the ever-changing menu, including Mexican and Hawaiian flavors in Kahlua Pork Nachos and Chinese flavors in their bao bun tacos.

“We all grew up around here and wanted to include the whole melting pot of LA in our menu by creating fusion dishes,” Montoya said.

Jenna Nicole Smith
/ daily bruin

You Eat Now!

Across cultures, children are familiar with parents, aunties and Lolas demanding “you eat now.” John Castro and A.J. Calomay hoped to evoke and satirize this communal experience when they named their pop-up, which they have attempted to host quarterly in Los Angeles since June 2016.

Neither are natives to the food scene and continue to primarily work in the film and television industry, but they see the pop-up as an extension of their involvement in the Filipino community. There are no standalone locations where you can find You Eat Now!, but they recently served Castro’s popular arroz caldo and his mother’s dinuguan (pork stewed in pork blood) at Barkada in February.

In the past, they have served Castro’s food in a number of diverse spaces including at the Commissary, the greenhouse restaurant atop The LINE LA hotel in Koreatown, and Mumford Brewing near Little Tokyo.

The venture started as large gatherings at Calomay’s house with friends and family. Eventually, he proposed to Castro they start a pop-up – he manages the business side, while Castro handles the food.

Calomay and Castro are hoping to create community-oriented events appealing to both Filipinos and non-Filipinos that double as a gateway to broader Filipino cuisine. The media rarely shows dishes like balut (a preserved, fertilized duck egg), except to disgust Western sensibilities.

“Sometimes a big tub of dinuguan isn’t appealing to people,” Calomay said. “But if it’s presented a different way, or if people see it on social media, they want to try it. And maybe if they’ll try that, they’ll try balut.”

Jenna Nicole Smith
/ daily bruin

Castro’s gelatinous arroz caldo is thick and creamy, only mildly seasoned to contrast with the crunchy, salty chunks of chicharones and crumbled boiled egg sprinkled on top. Sauteed spinach and shredded chicken add some color to the bowl, but also make it more nutritious and filling.

A chicken tocino sandwich, served with fries and atchara – shredded pickled vegetables – provides a familiar option to any unadventurous customers. Densely packed, slightly sweet shrimp lumpia over garlic rice is a middle-road option for anyone wanting to dip their toe, rather than plunge themselves, into Filipino cuisine.

While the arroz caldo and lumpia were the day’s most popular orders, the dinuguan highlights a traditional dish in a highly accessible way. By nature, dinuguan is meant to dress up the pig’s less appetizing entrails. Castro’s preparation, however, uses thick chunks of pork instead of the slippery liver and intestines commonly used in traditional preparations of the dish, without sacrificing taste. The rich vinegar stew coats a foundation of green rice with a chalky smooth mouth feel, broken up by thin slices of pickled baby bell peppers for added freshness.

The impermanence of You Eat Now! may cause distress to anyone wishing to become a loyal customer, but it hopefully means satisfied guests will not only want to try brick and mortar Filipino restaurants, but learn more about the culture as well.

Bahay Natin Food Mart

Michael Zshornack
/ daily bruin

Nestled in Palms, Bahay Natin literally translates to “our house.” While it is a small grocery store rather than a restaurant, Bahay Natin deserves recognition for living up to the promise of selling comfort in the form of frozen longanisa, a sweet sausage, jarred halo-halo toppings and other foods rarely found even in the “Asian” aisle of Ralphs.

In a food landscape that has not always included Filipino culture, the Westside grocery is much-loved by Filipino shoppers who miss the cuisine, but cannot trek across the city for a taste.

Eating Filipino food where it did not exist before – on Sawtelle Boulevard, in Hollywood, in Koreatown and in Grand Central Market has been transcendental. The cuisine has come a long way in the three years since I made my way to Bahay Natin for the first time, desperate to feed my homesickness with adobo, arroz caldo, and pancit.

Michael Zshornack
/ daily bruin

The little corner store was hardly equipped to satisfy the voracious appetite of someone aching for family, whose culinary life did not extend past surreptitiously boiling eggs in an electric kettle in her dorm room. But at the time, it was more than enough to see Filipino chips and contemplate the selection of ube and durian jam. I settled on buying a chicken empanada from a small case of prepared food, the edges slightly dehydrated from an indeterminable amount of time under a heat lamp.

That was enough then, but I’ll be damned if I’m ever satisfied that easily again.