Chef Alvin Cailan is known for Eggslut, the spot in Grand Central Market that serves egg sandwiches, egg sides, and even a coddled egg on a bed of mashed potatoes. Cailan went on to create more restaurants: Ramen Champ and Amboy (both in Chinatown). He’s out with a new cookbook/memoir called “Amboy: Recipes from the Filipino-American Dream.”
Cailan talks to KCRW about growing up in a household full of cooks, leaving a construction career to become a chef, the growth of Eggslut, and some dishes in his new cookbook and restaurant.
KCRW: What does Amboy mean?
Alvin Cailan: “It really just means American-born Filipino. Even if you're female, they don't say Amgirl, they just call us Amboy.
… I don't know where that came from, but my grandma used to call me that. When I would go home to the Philippines to visit her, she would tell her church friends and she would describe me as, ‘Oh, this is my grandson. He's Amboy.’
… That's really what it turned out to be like my flavors and my personal style of cooking.”
You grew up in Pico Rivera, and your family members were cooks. Describe your household. Was there always a pot of something delicious?
“Every day there's either something being made or something being prepared or cooking.
… My mom didn't cook at all. My mom would always say that she was the person who cleaned up after everybody.
But my dad was the chef, and my great grandma was like the chef for the entire family when we would get together. And then my aunt moved in with us when I was in third grade or fourth grade, and she ended up having a catering business that she would do out of the backyard.
So my house was definitely just full of food all the time being cooked. Like the smell of fried garlic and cooked stews were definitely prevalent in my household on a daily basis.”
Your dad often made beef nilaga, which you call a “hug in a bowl.” Can you describe that dish?
“My love for beef is because of my dad. Because I think beef was a treat. It was almost like a reward for working hard — because it was a little bit more expensive than pork and chicken. My dad would make this at least once a week, if not twice a week, and it's something that I ate my entire life. And just the smell of bones stewing in broth, and the fish sauce, and the soft mushy potatoes that would cook in the broth — just that having that experience, it really is the definition for me of comfort food.
And I think now, even on my hardest of hardest days, I’ll ask my dad if he could make it for me. And he has time, he does. It's something that me and him share. It's a beautiful dish.
I hope people actually get this book and read it. I hope they make it for their family because it is so good.”
When did you decide to become a serious chef?
“It was post-college into what I thought was going to be a career … as an account representative for a big construction company. And so when I was at work, I would rush doing my work. And then when I would have free time, I would look up recipes. And then when I would go home from work, I would spend the entire evening cooking and then eating. And then the next day, I did it over and over until I was super fed up with my job. And I was like … cooking is something that makes me happy and I was willing to do anything. So I packed my bags up, and I moved to Portland without telling anybody, and I went to culinary school.
… The only person that knew was my brother. And I even had a girlfriend back then that I just left. I didn't tell my parents. I didn't want them to stop me at all. I didn't want anyone to stop me for that matter. I had my heart set on being a chef and learning how to cook. And I didn't want anything to get in between that dream.”
After graduation, you were in some professional kitchens, then you came back to LA and started a food truck called Eggslut. Why did you name it Eggslut?
“It was very controversial, especially when no one knew about it. And they just heard about it. It was really something for me to shake up the scene.
I didn't know how to make waves at the time as a cook. And at the time, it was like a foodie term. … Chefs were putting eggs on everything — pasta, rice. And we would say, ‘Oh that chef, blah, blah, blah. He's an eggslut.’
And so we were like, ‘This has to be a name of a place.’ Because it's a great idea when you're making a menu, you can just throw eggs on everything. In 2010, that was a really big food trend. And that's really how we came up with the name.”
Eggslut became a big deal, and you had celebrities showing up at your food truck. Then you opened this outpost at Grand Central Market, and someone offered you $150 million to sell it, and you didn't take it. How come?
“The guy was saying that's how much he could invest into the company to
make multiple locations and turn it into a franchise situation. But at the time, and I still feel that way now, I didn't really care for that. Because for me, I've always wanted to create a restaurant that becomes an institution into a city. And that's really what I aim for, even with my new restaurant now, Amboy. I don't have the aspirations of growing well over 150 locations, being a publicly traded company or whatever. For me, it's really simple. It's just to make great food and to be able to do what you love for the rest of your life. And back then, no money in the world was big enough for me to like, give up Eggslut.”
In your new restaurant Amboy, you have traditional Filipino dishes, plus takes on Filipino dishes that you create?
“That was all pre-pandemic, this was going to be more of a Filipino-inspired steak house. But now … with COVID-19, we kind of turned it into a neighborhood butcher shop. And then also order hamburgers — because hamburgers and having a butcher shop go hand in hand because of the trim and stuff like that. So it's also easy to take out. So it evolved into a burger joint.”
What makes a burger Filipino American?
“Our burgers really don't have much pinpoint distinction for Filipino American besides the fact that I'm a Filipino chef that created the recipes.
… What evolved into the burgers here at Amboy are my experiences from traveling across the country doing the Burger Show.
And so what makes our burgers unique in general is that we have our own buttons made specifically and uniquely for us, based off of the menu that we developed during COVID quarantining. And then we grind our own beef. And everything is done in-house. … When it comes to sauces and stuff like that, we do it all in-house. And it's definitely something unique in the city of Los Angeles for sure.”
You wax poetic about pan de sol in your book. Describe that.
“It's a sweeter bun. I guess you can compare it to Hawaiian bread loosely. It's inspired by the Portuguese-style dinner roll. And it's topped with breadcrumbs.
And similarly to the bun that we use here at Amboy, we use a similar flavor profile to pan de sal, but it doesn't have like the crumb and the texture on the exterior of a pan de sal. We went with more of a traditional route, so we do sesame seed and poppy seed-topped buns.
… Pan de sol is a huge part of my pantry ever since I was a kid. Some of my earliest memories with food is walking to … a pan de sol bakery up in East Hollywood. … I remember going to the shop and smelling their bread. And as soon as my dad would receive the hot bag of buns, I would reach my hand in there and just tear one open and eat the inside. It's something that I love so much. And I think every Filipino and Filipino American can agree it's, it's special.”
Your book features an ambitious recipe for whole roast pig. There are instructions on how to build a backyard barbeque pit for the pig.
“It’s like a seven day process in the book. I was like, ‘You know what, no one's ever going to do this.’ And someone just hit me up on Instagram, and they said that they read that part of the book, and that they're going to do it, and they’re going to put it on their YouTube channel to see if it actually works.
… It would be a themed party for sure.”
Where would you get a whole pig to do this?
“Not to plug my place, but you can definitely order one from me here at Amboy Quality Meats in Chinatown. But you could definitely go to a lot of Chinese supermarkets, and they usually have one in the back somewhere.”
Recipe: Amboy Adobo
The traditional way of making adobo is super fastand super easy. But, as a young cook, I didn’t like how you would quickly sear chicken and end up with a somewhat tough meat. I didn’t want to stray from what’s traditionally in adobo, but I did want to use a different technique. It wasn’t till I began tomaster sauces in school and play with French basics that I figured out the answer.I would start by brining my chicken so it would stay tender, then sear it skin-side down until per-fectly brown. I’d throw in whole garlic cloves and let that simmer until the garlic softened. Then, I deglazed the pan with my homemade chicken stock. I added my Datu Puti soy sauce and cane vinegar and tasted it. If something was missing, I’d throw in a bay leaf or a couple peppercorns.At that point, the sauce was still very watery, so I used beurre manié, a mixture of butter and flour, to thicken it and add a rich velvety-ness and depth of flavor. Then I basted the seared chicken with the adobo sauce to infuse the two together.The result is a refined version of an adobo. Thechicken skin stays intact and crispy because it is seared. It’s moist in the middle and saucy thanks to the thick adobo sauce. When you eat it with rice, that thick sauce almost becomes a gravy. A thin sauce isn’t bad at all, but this amplified version appeals to me more. It has a rich, super-salty, super-umami flavor. Enjoy it with hot rice!
- 2 gallons water
- 2 cups kosher salt
- 2 cups loosely packed dark brown sugar
- 1 cup fresh calamansi juice (see Note, page 68)4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 3 pounds total)4 bone-in, skin-on chicken drumsticks
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 16 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 quarts Homemade Chicken Stock (page 44)
- ¾ cup Datu Puti cane vinegar (see page 137; available at Asian markets and on Amazon)
- ½ cup Datu Putior Silver Swan soy sauce (see page 60; available at Asian markets and on Amazon)
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 to 6 tablespoons Beurre Manié (recipe follows)Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups Steamed Jasmine Rice (page 20), for serving
BRINE THE CHICKEN: Combine the water, salt, brown sugar, and calamansi juice in a large stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Boil for 3 minutes, then remove from the heat. Let the brine cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until very cold, about 2 hours. Add the chicken to the brine and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.
Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. This is vital: The chicken must be completely dried before we start cooking.
MAKE THE ADOBO: Heat a large Dutch oven or cast-iron pot over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil and heat until it sizzles. Carefully add the chicken thighs, skin-side down, in a single layer and spaced apart—if you crowd them, the cooking surface will cool and you won’t get that nice crispy chicken skin. Cook the chicken until the skin is golden brown, about 5 minutes. Test that the chicken can move easily from the pan; if there’s any resistance, the chicken isn’t done yet. The chicken actually talks to you!
When the skin is nice and crispy and releases easily, cut the heat to medium and flip the chicken. Cook until the internal temperature reaches 155°F, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate. Repeat with the drumsticks. Reserve all the chicken fat inthe pot.Afterward, there should be delicious bits of chicken (“fond”) on the cooking surface. Those right there are our best friend. Do not in any way burn that fond. Add the garlic to the pot and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the chickenstock and scrape up all the fond from the bottom of the pot. Add the vinegar, soy sauce, and bay leaves. Crank up the heat to bring the liquid to a boil.Cut the heat to a simmer and return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the pot. Let the chicken braise until some of the meat pulls from the bone, about 1½ hours.
Transfer the chicken to serving plates.But wait, you’re not finished! To prep the sauce, fish out the bay leaves and discard them. Smash the garlic cloves or, if you want to get fancy,use an immersion blender to crush the garlic in the adobo sauce. At this point, you’ve reached adobo status.
But we can take it up a notch. Turn the heat up to medium again and bring the sauce to a boil. Whisk in the beurre manié, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the sauce reaches your desired thickness. Once you get to the consistency that you like, taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper.
Ladle the finished sauce over the chicken, and boom, you’ve got Amboy-style adobo. Serve hot with rice.
Makes About 10 Tablespoons
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
In a small bowl, smash the butter into the flour with a fork until fully incorporated. It should look like a soft cookie dough. Use the beurre manié right away or wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temperature before using.
— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy