For several years now, there’s been speculation that Filipino food is on the verge of moving out of the shadows and into the spotlight of the LA food scene. But Filipino food is nothing new in Los Angeles. Take a quick drive down the 101 or along Temple Street between Glendale and Hoover, and you’ll see the signs for Historic Filipinotown. The first wave of Filipino immigrants planted roots here in the first half of the 20th century. Unlike in Koreatown, Thai Town and Little Tokyo, it does take some searching to find a great plate of adobo, pancit or lechon, especially if you don’t know where to look. Lucky for us, a growing group of second generation Filipino-Americans are reintroducing Los Angeles to the flavors of their culture and cuisine, including brothers Chad and Chase Valencia. Their weekly pop-up at Alvin Cailan’s culinary incubator space Unit 120 in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza is called LASA. The restaurant features a “Pinoy-California” menu that Jonathan Gold says is all its own.
The Valencias are part of a tightly knit group of Pinoys in their 30s working in restaurants and actively engaged in the dialogue of what it means to be cooking Filipino-American cuisine in Southern California. Until now, many first generation Filipinos probably never had the chance to taste dishes like the sour-savory meat soup sinigang made from fresh tamarind sauce. Or red snapper kinilaw, a Filipino-style ceviche that chef Chad Valencia prepares with fresh plums and lemon cucumbers. Rather such traditional dishes were made using store-bought, pre-packaged ingredients because convenience was key in the post-World War II era. Working with seasonal California ingredients that they buy at local farmers markets, the Valencias are rediscovering the lost flavors and techniques of their traditional cuisine. It’s a way to honor their heritage and give back to the older generation that worked hard to give their kids the creative freedom and opportunities for experimentation that they now have. (Find Chad’s red snapper kinilaw recipe here.)
In the Valencia household, food was always the focus. “My mom was always cooking back-to-back meals. There weren’t even breaks. Sometimes there were leftovers and then you’d roll into the new,” says Chase Valencia, 32, who manages the business side of things at LASA. His 30-year-old brother Chad is the chef. Members of their extended family and friends were always dining at their house, comparing one aunt’s cooking to another’s over in-depth discussions about beef-to-carrot ratios in lumpia (egg rolls). “That was the whole idea of LASA as a name,” Valencia says. “In Tagalog, lasa means flavor. When I came up with the name LASA, I was actually thinking about the word sabor, which also means flavor in Spanish and the strength of that word being so powerful. In Tagalog, lasa is the same way. That’s when it hit me.”
The brothers trace their roots to Pampanga, a province in Central Luzon that is famous for its culinary tradition. During the colonial era, many Kapampangans were enlisted as cooks by the church and high-ranking Spanish government officials. Cooking has been a point of pride passed down from one Valencia generation to the next, many of whom were taught family recipes and told stories of how their great-grandmother would cook for the entire town on Christmas day. “I’m really proud of this. Our family always really pushed us to be Filipino. We were hardwired to know what good food is… When Filipino diners come and ask where our family is from, they often say, ‘No wonder you guys cook so well and your food is good. Your family is from Pampanga!’ It’s kind of rad. It’s like there’s this trust in what we’re doing as a restaurant.”
Valencia admits that it’s taking some time for the older generation to come around to his crew’s interpretation of Filipino-American food. Many of the old-timers still ask why adobo and lechon aren’t on the menu. When LASA first opened, Valencia recalls the first time a guest outside their extended circle dined with his Filipino mother. She walked in with a smirk but left with an understanding of the brothers’ mission: “I get what you guys are trying to do! You’re trying to make Filipino food, but your own. You’re making Filipino-American food but your generation’s food, not like I cook, but your style of cooking. You should be on TFC and Adobo Nation!”
It may still be too soon to tell where the Filipino-American food scene is headed. But the Valencia brothers aren’t waiting to find out: they’re on the hunt for a brick-and-mortar space in Chinatown to set down roots, so they can continue to develop and promote their unique culinary narrative. “We’re kind of like that band on SoundCloud that everyone is listening to right now and hyped on, but we’re just not there yet. Everyone’s kind of digging it and there’s a murmuring,” says Valencia. “We’re not on iTunes or Spotify, but we’re on the heat list.”
Location: 727 North Broadway, Unit #120, Los Angeles, CA 90012 | (213) 443-6163
Find more of Jonathan Gold’s restaurant recommendations here.