WATCH: Chef Isa Fabro make isamadas at Unit 120

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If you’re passing through Chinatown’s Far East Plaza at dawn, don’t be surprised if you hear Mahler or Led Zeppelin blasting from the window of Unit 120. “I tend to not work with music while I’m prepping. But sometimes it can be really great just to rock out and start dancing and jump off the table,” says Isa Fabro, nudging hip dark-rimmed glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose. This morning, the driven, funny 39-year-old chef is making pastries. Specifically, isamadas, a nod to her name and to ensaïmadas, the Filipino brioches that are filled with purple ube and topped with sweet cheese. They are a mash-up, she says, of the ensaïmada and the French Breton kouign-amanns. Savory, sweet, rich, flaky and very good.

At Unit 120, Isa Fabro puts sweet cheddar cheese on isamadas that have just come out of the oven. Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW
At Unit 120, Isa Fabro puts sweet cheese on a tray of isamadas just out of the oven. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)

Fabro started making pastries here in March. She has more than a decade of fine dining experience under her belt, most recently as the pastry chef at Josef Centeno’s Orsa & Winston in Downtown LA. It wasn’t until February, during a revelatory month-long trip to the Philippines, that Fabro started thinking about working Filipino flavors into her desserts. Though she was still jet-lagged, Alvin Cailan of Eggslut fame and founder of Amboy and Unit 120, suggested Fabro start making desserts the first Thursday evening in March in the Far East Plaza. Fabro took him up on the offer. “People are really curious and excited about Filipino cuisine. I thought, ‘Wow, if anybody’s going to do this food, it should be me because, yes, I’m Filipino-American and I also have this knowledge of working in really good kitchens.’”

Isa Fabro sells six desserts from the Unit 120 window. Here: the isamada, coconut malas and the banana chocolate pili nut toffee brownies she calls Food for the Gods. Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/KCRW
Fabro sells six desserts at the Unit 120 window. Here: her isamada, her coconut malas and her banana chocolate pili nut toffee brownies that she calls “Food for the Gods.” (Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/KCRW)

Cailan opened Unit 120 earlier this year. The culinary incubator is, in his words, “an open mic night for chefs” who have a concept but no place to execute that concept. Now Fabro makes six desserts in the tiny shared Unit 120 kitchen. Chase and Chad Valencia’s pop-up restaurant, LASA, and Cailan’s Amboy also operate out of Unit 120. They’re all part of the new wave of second generation Filipino-American chefs who are introducing Angelenos to their spin on Modern Filipino food. “It’s been a great support group,” says Fabro, who was born in Canada but moved to the US when she was three. “We call ourselves Barkada LA. It’s a Filipino word. It translates to ‘the group of school friends you get in trouble with’.”

Each of the desserts Fabro sells from the Unit 120 window is an homage to her Pinay roots. Her coconut malas are deep-fried rice and tapioca flour donuts that are a cross between Hawaiian malasadas and Filipino karyokas. They’re salty and sweet, coated in a caramelized coconut milk called latík and served on wooden sticks. Then there are the banana chocolate pili nut toffee brownies she (rightly) calls “Food for the Gods,” and halo-halo, her version of Filipino shaved ice that includes some combination of beans, coconut, milk, pinipig, puffed rice and leche flan.

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Fabro’s isamadas contain layers of rich puff pastry dough and a paste made of ube, a sweet potato that is native to the Philippines. After being baked, they are topped with sweet cheddar cheese. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)

Fabro uses good quality ingredients for her isamadas too: slow-churned Plugrá butter and a paste she makes from scratch with ube, the sweet purple yams native to the Philippines. To make the isamadas, the kitchen has got to be cold. After the dough has retarded overnight, Fabro arrives at Unit 120 early the next morning to roll it out in thin sheets. Then she scores the dough and carefully scoops purple ube paste into the center of each 4-inch square before pinching the corners into neat round buns. The isamadas are brushed with an egg wash and put into the oven in cupcake molds. When they’re done, the isamadas are topped with shredded sweet cheese while hot.

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The final step — before digging in — is to add sweet cheese on the isamadas right out of the oven. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)

Since Howlin’ Rays will be closed by the time you arrive at Far East Plaza for dinner, you might try the Detroit-style pizza that Fabro is dishing up with Alvin Cailan on Monday nights. Fabro is responsible for the inch-thick decadent crust that has cheese baked into it and Cailan makes the pepperoni, cheese and Portobello mushroom toppings. The rectangular pizzas cost $12 for six square slices, each of them dusted with fennel pollen, fresh herbs, cracked pepper and Jacobsen sea salt. Be sure to get there early — the window opens at 6 p.m. — before the pies sell out.

Square slices of Detroit-style portobello mushroom and pepperoni pizza from Isa Fabro and Alvin Cailan. Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/KCRW
Square slices of Detroit-style portobello mushroom and pepperoni pizza made by Isa Fabro and Alvin Cailan. A Monday night special! (Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/KCRW)