In Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of places to eat excellent Filipino food. A group calling itself the Sinigang gang, so named after the quintessential Filipino dish, recently made the rounds in Eagle Rock and Glassell Park.
11 A.M. – JOLLIBEE
Jollibee, in the basement of the Dollar King Eagle Rock Mall on Colorado Boulevard, is the first stop on today’s crawl. Jollibee is the largest fast food chain in the Philippines. It opened its first American restaurant in 1998 in Daly City, California. Now the company has nearly 40 locations in the US, with 100 additional restaurants in the pipeline. All the food on the menu is affordable, served quickly and infused with the flavors of the Philippines. “When I moved here, Jollibee’s became this nostalgic place and that’s why I like to eat here now,” says Paola Mardo, who grew up in the Philippines before moving to the States when she was in high school. She hosts and produces Long Distance, a podcast about the Filipino diaspora featuring stories like hers.
We try the Chickenjoy first. It’s crispy fried chicken served with brown gravy and a scoop of fluffy white rice. “There’s a nice crunch and a really good saltiness to it,” says Nastassia Johnson, who co-founded one of the first Filipino food trucks in Los Angeles called the Manila Machine. Next up is the Jolly Spaghetti, a dish of noodles with sliced hotdog, ham, ground beef and shredded cheese. “It's a perfect post-World War II what's-leftover-from-the-military taste bomb,” says USC professor Karen Tongson.
Tongson prefers the taste of the Palabok Fiesta, a plate of translucent rice noodles, tiny shrimp and a boiled egg topped topped with crackly chicharon. “It's all about connecting to foods that I associate with the Philippines,” she says. “Usually we zest the lemon juice right on top and we mix it up.”
“Back home, they use calamansi,” says Chase Valencia, the general manager and co-owner of LASA in Chinatown, referring to the small citrus fruit that’s cultivated in the Philippines. His fondest memory of Jollibee comes in a steaming cardboard box: the peach mango pie. “It's akin to the baked apple pie from McDonald's but I'd say a Filipino version. It is fried, it’s kind of sweet and inside you get peach, mango tastiness.”
Location: Eagle Rock Plaza, 2700 Colorado Boulevard, Suite 140, Los Angeles, CA 90041 | (323) 258-5664
11:45 A.M. – TOTO’S LECHON MANOK
From Jollibee, we hop in the car and make the five-minute drive to Toto’s Lechon Manok, which sits in an unassuming strip mall on the corner of Verdugo and York. There are a few wrought-iron tables outside, but most customers seem to order at the counter inside and take their food to go.
More than 80 percent of the Philippines is Catholic, and Mardo points out the traditional Santo Niño de Cebú statue of the Christ child that greets us at the door. “It's right next to some very Filipino condiments,” she says. “You'll see the Jufran banana ketchup, which we might have over some of our food today, and, of course, you have to have the Knorr. Sometimes you have Maggi but Knorr is a liquid salty umami seasoning that you put over rice, maybe, with a little butter.” Meanwhile, Valencia puts in our order: lechon belly, lechon manok, barbecue chicken and pork skewers, four scoops of rice, and a little brown paper bag of dilis, which are tiny deep-fried fried smelt. All of our food will be eaten standing up outside, with lots of vinegar.
Tongson says Toto’s Lechon Manok gets its name from the coal-roasted chicken dish made in the Visayas region of the Philippines. “I know ‘lechon’ is usually associated with pig -- a big whole pig, roasted, with that beautiful crackled brown skin,” she says. “Lechon manok is a variant on this.” The sweet marinade for meat is made with soy sauce, and, often, 7-Up or Sprite. When our food is ready, the lechon belly and lechon manok are succulent and juicy inside, with nice crunchy skin on the outside. “If it’s not crispy, it’s not lechon,” says Valencia.
Location: 4110 Verdugo Road, Los Angeles, CA 90065 | (323) 259-9926
12:45 P.M. – AUNTIE DEE’S PAN DE MANILA
After the last crispy smelt is dipped in vinegar and eaten, we drive under the 2 freeway, past the gas stations and taco trucks to Auntie Dee’s Pan de Manila. The incredible smell of freshly baked bread wafts out of the bakery. Auntie Dee’s has a wide array of sweet and savory foods to choose from, from ube macapuno ensaymadas and steamed pork asado rolls to cassava flan and frozen lumpia. But we’re here for the pan de sal.
Pan de sal is to the Philippines as sourdough is to San Francisco and biscuits are to the South. It is the quintessential Filipino bread, a round yeasted roll that is roughly the size of hamburger bun. “We eat it all the time—for breakfast, with dinner, you can make sandwiches,” says Johnson. “A bag per person. No sharing. It's that good.” After paying for our two big brown paper bags of bread, we walk outside for a taste. The pan de sal is warm, with just a touch of sugar. Fine breadcrumbs are baked into the golden tops of each roll. “I'll always love that there’s the crumbly top,” says Johnson. “It’s pan de sal on pan de sal.”
As a kid, Tongson dunked pan de sal in coffee with milk and sugar. Mardo grew up eating her pan de sal with butter. “In the afternoon we would eat it with a little bit of corned beef, kind of like a sandwich, toasted. Other favorite pan de sal toppings? Leftover asado or adobo, Cheez Whiz, sweetened condensed milk, Kraft singles, and butter and sugar.
Location: 3756 W. Avenue 40, Los Angeles, CA 90065 | (323) 478-9284
1:15 P.M. – LUTONG BAHAY
A few doors down from Auntie Dee’s sits Lutong Bahay, the final stop of today’s food crawl. Lutong Bahay is a “turo turo,” a common type of Filipino restaurant offering nearly two dozen hot stews for customers to choose from in stainless steel trays. Mardo says that “lutong bahay” means “home-cooked” in Tagalog and “turo turo” means “point point.” The meaning of the latter is revealed as soon as our number is called. Mardo simply points to the dishes she wants to try: sinigang, kare kare, pinakbet and laing. The food is ladled into styrofoam containers and we carry it all out to the tailgate of Evan’s truck.
The group begins with the kare kare, an oxtail stew made with peanut sauce. “People usually use peanut butter when they're here in the States to make it,” says Tongson. “It doesn't come with a lot of salt in the stew so you eat it with a shrimp paste called bagoong.” Next, it’s on to a medley of bright vegetables called pinakbet. The string beans, tomatoes and bitter melon are a welcome break from so much meat. “If vegetarians or pescetarians are looking for an entree to Filipino cuisine, this is a good one,” she says.
In contrast, the laing is rich and sweet, thanks to the taro leaves and coconut milk that make up this dish. “It’s Filipino creamed spinach,” says Valencia. Finally, the gang tastes the sinigang, and the pork vegetable soup is a crowd favorite. Lutong Bahay’s is made with okra, bokchoy, eggplant, tomato, tamarind. Warm and tangy, it’s just the thing to eat on an overcast Los Angeles day. “Porky goodness,” says Mardo. “We’re getting our home-cooked food fix.”
Location: 3756 W. Avenue 40, Los Angeles, CA 90065 | (323) 255-7827
Total distance of crawl: 2.4 miles
Total number of dishes: 14
Total driving time: 11 minutes, depending on LA traffic
THIS POST MADE POSSIBLE WITH HELP FROM KCRW’S INDEPENDENT PRODUCER PROJECT.