If you don’t yet know chef Alvin Cailan by name, chances are you’ve devoured one of his addictive
bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches after patiently waiting in line at Eggslut
in Grand Central Market
. And breakfast indulgences aside, his name is really one you should get to know. An LA native, Alvin is currently leading the charge of LA’s burgeoning Filipino food movement. He’s tirelessly working to bring the cuisine into the mainstream dining scene with the help of a coalition of exceptionally talented chefs from some of the city’s top restaurants. It’s a goal that’s been attempted by others in the past, but thanks to the coordinated efforts of the highly decorated crew and a steady increase in attention from the public and critics, is finally taking hold.
Charles Olalia of RiceBar and Alvin Cailan of Eggslut and Unit 120. Image courtesy of Danny Jensen.
One reason you may not yet know Alvin Cailan’s name is because he’s not the fame-hungry chef-type set on seeing his name in lights. Instead, he’s more like a great conductor, dedicated to orchestrating the talents of his peers to create a delicious symphony. In addition to helping to bring together a coalition of Filipino American chefs, a perfect example of this brand of big picture leadership is Alvin’s creation of Unit 120
, a culinary incubator in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza
. The unique space offers a full kitchen and neutrally-designed dining room, as well as a take out window, where chefs and restaurateurs can test out their concepts. “When we started this we had a really strict ethos of incubation,” Cailan explains about the now one-year-old project. “We wanted to make sure that we limited risk for restaurant concepts here so they could eventually open as a brick and mortar.”
Depending on the night of the week, you’ll find a completely different team and menu in the space. Remember that Bob's Burgers pop-up in late 2016, for instance?—that was Unit 120. But of all the exciting concepts at the bustling incubator, there’s one that brings together Cailan’s devotion to creating a launch pad for talented chefs and his efforts to build the Filipino food movement.
LASA is an on-going weekend residency from brothers Chad and Chase Valencia, which features a seasonally rotating prix fixe menu of modern takes on Filipino flavors using classic French techniques. On the latest menu you’ll find creative dishes like suam na mais, a spin on the classic Filipino corn soup or a grilled monkfish with the coconut based stew ginataan, charred gailan greens and bagoong XO, a fermented fish sauce.
The Valencia brothers by Maricel Sison
Suam Na Mais. Image by Stephanie Barros
"They had the ambition to open their own restaurant even before they linked up with us for Unit 120, but back then their business structure was risky,” Alvin says of the Valencia brothers. “Since they've been here they've been able to save a lot of money on their own as independent owners without investors and now they're ready to open their own restaurant. So, mission accomplished."
From left: Iseo Valencia, Chad Valencia, Alvin Cailan, Isa Fabro and Chase Valencia at Unit 120. Image courtesy of LASA
Cailan, a trained and experienced chef himself, is intimately familiar with the challenges of making the leap from a restaurant vision to reality. Growing up in a Filipino household in Pico Rivera, the predominantly Latino city in southeastern LA County, Cailan admits that he was worlds away from the fine dining cuisine he would encounter later in life, but it was nonetheless eclectic. "Growing up I ate tacos, and enchiladas were my favorite. And because both my parents worked nine-to-five, I was raised by my dad's dad while they were at work and he would cook traditional Filipino food like sinigang, tinola, and bisteg,” Cailan says. “But my mom and dad were also really big on microwavable food, I guess it was just that time. So, I always had Tyson chicken patties and would make chicken patty melts all the time. That was one of the first stages of me interacting in a kitchen: A) cooking eggs and rice for my dad and B) making Tyson chicken patty melts. I used to eat so trashy."
Besides eating Filipino food at home, tacos and fast food, Cailan says Chinese food was the first ethnic food he encountered as a kid. Then in middle school he encountered Vietnamese cuisine at Pho 79 in the very location where he would many years later launch his culinary incubator, “Vividly I remember being in 7th grade eating pho in the space that is now Unit 120.”
It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school that Cailan began to really dive into life in the kitchen when he was hired as a dishwasher at the Sacred Heart Retreat House. “The majority of the people that lived there were nuns,” Cailan says. “So, I would cook for the nuns every day and then on the weekends they'd have retreats so I would wash dishes for about 400 participants. It was nuts.”
At the retreat house, Cailan was given access to a commercial kitchen, and suddenly his curiosity began to spike. “We'd have catering for 400 people and have say 50 pounds of chicken thighs leftover, what are you going to do with that?” he recalls. “My initial thought was 'Let me make fried chicken for the nuns for dinner.' And so I started doing that and getting creative and the next thing you know I fell in love with real food and started going to real restaurants when I was 17-18 years old.”
Along with his friend Mark Tagnipez, who is now the sous chef at E.P. & L.P. in West Hollywood, Cailan began exploring many of LA’s iconic and celebrated culinary institutions, including Campanile, Water Grill and Dan Tana's. “I also fell in love with French food, so I would go to places like Taix, Maison Akira in Pasadena, and La Creperie Cafe in Long Beach,” Cailan says. A delicious, new world was suddenly opening before him.
And while Mark Tagnipez headed off to culinary school, Cailan’s parents insisted he attend college rather than venture into the restaurant world. He graduated from Cal State Fullerton, but found that the kitchen continued to call to him. “I worked in construction, but didn’t like it at all. All I could think about was making a bolognese or if I were to deglaze a steak, what would it be like to use cognac instead of red wine?” So when the construction company folded following some shady dealings, Cailan took his severance pay and headed north to Portland where he attended the Oregon Culinary Institute.
After culinary school, Cailan worked in some of Portland’s top fine dining destinations. But before long, the nationwide recession began taking a toll on the city’s culinary scene and Cailan decided to make his way back down the coast. Cailan returned home to develop his skills in the kitchens of The French Laundry, Spago, Hatfield’s, Bouchon, and also helped chef David LeFevre open Manhattan Beach Post. At a certain point, Cailan felt that the trek from his home in Pico Rivera to the restaurant in Manhattan Beach was guzzling too much gas and he yearned to venture out on his own. “I had the experience and I need to start making real money, so I decided to do a pop up in a food truck for 6 months,” Cailan explains.
That pop-up was Eggslut, his breakfast concept that quickly caught fire and began drawing crowds and accolades over the next several years. Eggslut put Cailan on the culinary map of LA, eventually leading to the ever-crowded counter at Grand Central Market, and new locations in Venice, Las Vegas and now Glendale.
Image courtesy of Eggslut
Now with Unit 120, Cailan aims to provide other chefs with the space and resources to find their own success, while also hopefully avoiding the challenges and pitfalls that he faced while working to bring his dream to life. “We're fortunate enough to have the chefs that we have here and now they're all getting accolades across the city, nationwide even,” Cailan says. “It's been a crazy ride and we're not stopping. We're still constantly re-creating this space.”
Unit 120 also serves as a homebase of sorts for Cailan and his fellow chefs to help grow LA’s Filipino food movement. "Over the last year we've been really strong on creating a Filipino community of chefs,” Cailan explains. And while you may not yet know some of their names either, you’ve likely eaten at their restaurants. There’s Charles Olalia of RiceBar Chad and Chase Valencia of LASA, Ria Wilson formerly of Wild, Ken Concepcion of CUT, Maynard Llera of Bestia, Russell Victorioso of Odys + Penelope and Isa Fabro who previously worked at Orsa & Winston and now heads up the dessert program at Unit 120. Collectively they’ve worked to bring Filipino flavors and dishes to the forefront of dining in Los Angeles. Cailan notes that many other chefs and restaurants across the city are also now exploring Filipino cuisine on their menus.
But just like any burgeoning food scene, the Filipino food movement is not without its aspiring young upstarts, looking to jump on the trend. And while Cailan wants to see more places and chefs representing Filipino food, he also cautions against those who may lack the experience to sustain the movement, and in turn, potentially hurt the cause. Cailan explains:
“There's a young entrepreneurial spirit coming up that goes against everything that we believe in within our chef coalition, which is that we've worked for the past 15 years in kitchens and have earned to be where we are. As opposed to kids fresh out of high school or college and borrow money from their parents to try and operate a Filipino food concept or restaurant without any experience. That leads to poorly constructed food and venues, which are bound to shutter and weaken our Filipino food movement.”
Cailan encourages those who are looking to open a Filipino restaurant or pop-up to approach him and his fellow chefs first. “Not that we know everything,” he says. “It's just that we've been there before and wouldn't want anyone to make the same mistakes.” He continues:
“The difference between most Filipino food movements and what we're doing as a barkada (which means a group of friends in Filipino—that's what we call ourselves)—is that collectively we have 100 years of experience in the restaurant industry as chefs. And some of these people have none. It's not that we're the governing body, but we encourage people to come and talk to us and ask questions. Tell us how we can help you, so we're not working against each other. That's where we're at right now, I literally feel like the ambassador where I have to eat at different concepts and say 'Hey, here's my card, give me a call." It's weird, but we care about it that much.”
Challenges aside, Cailan is encouraged by ongoing evolution and notable successes made over the past year to bring Filipino food to more people, thanks in part to his group’s collective efforts. “And still not all of the concepts have been launched yet, so we still have a big year ahead of us,” he enthusiastically explains. Thanks to the successes and growing popularity of chefs like Charles Olalia, Chad and Chase Valencia, and others in the barkada, Cailan feels they’ve helped to solidify their street cred as a movement. “And now everyone wants to see what we're doing,” he says.
“I think that's our biggest accomplishment in 2016 for the Filipino food movement, is that people are no longer just curious, now they are seeking us out and now they’re craving Filipino food through all of these places, all of these concepts, and people are no longer afraid to try it. Everyone is eating it and now we're formulating a buzz.”
By creating that buzz and introducing a wider audience to Filipino flavors and cuisine, Cailan feels that the first stage of the movement is nearing completion. Now the plan is to sustain, and create a lasting impression that isn’t just a temporary trend. He’s also keeping an eye on Hollywood, “Next thing you know, you're favorite sit-com on your favorite network will be ordering Filipino food as take-out in one of their scenes,” he half-jokes. “And ultimately when we get to that point: We've made it. When Filipino food becomes product placement in Hollywood, then I think we've kind of done what we had to do."
“Everyone's doing solid Filipino food in the crew,” Cailan says of his barkada. “And there's more coming that I can't even talk about yet. We're nailing breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, late night, and bar menus.” To help us navigate all of those delicious options, Cailan gave us the rundown on his favorite Filipino restaurants in LA, including both the old-school joints, new hotspots and even a few non-Filipino restaurants that are borrowing flavors from the cuisine.
Alvin Cailan: Chad and Chase Valencia are at the forefront of Filipino food movement. Their attention to detail in both the kitchen and the dining room nails the modern aesthetic of the Filipino dining experience. They use locally sourced ingredients, ultra high level of cookery and they practice restraint and control. I'm proud of their work at Unit 120 and I'm super excited to see what's next!
Image courtesy of Danny Jensen
LA Rose Cafe
East Hollywood, $$
AC: Hands down my favorite place to go. It's an awesome Filipino spot: there's a grand piano in the dining room, you feel like you're in your grandma's dining room when you eat there. And they have a great host and they nail the ambiance. I usually get breakfast there, so the silogs that they have, which is garlic rice and eggs with either longganisa (Filipino sausage) or tocino (cured pork shoulder) or tapa (beef cured with soy sauce). They have the best Filipino breakfast in the city, it's old school. their food just tastes like home.
AC: Charles Olalia is not just an amazing chef, he's one of my best friends. I learn so much from him. His passion for food and his vast knowledge of Filipino food history helps our group of Filipino American chefs understand why we cook what we cook. RiceBar is a reflection of Chef Charles—he makes traditional Filipino dishes rooted in history and he emphasizes the use of sustainably grown rice grown in the Philippines. His ethos as a chef is infectious and it shows (he was one of the top 50 best new restaurants in the USA Bon Appetit 2016!). My favorite thing there is the bisteg tagolog, it just reminds me of home. And his longganisa is super good, too.
Panorama City, West Covina, Cerritos, $
AC: For a really guilty pleasure I go to Pinoy-Pinay, which is a Filipino "point-point" joint. It's buffet steam table-style, but you don't scoop it, they do. It's like four or five bucks and you get two meat entrees and two scoops of rice. I usually get dinuagan, which is pork blood stew, and I'll get lechon kawali, which is pork belly that's been steamed and deep fried: delicious. I go there a lot. Especially when I'm having a bad day, that's my go to joint.
Oi Asian Fusion
East Hollywood, Canoga Park, $
AC: It's kind of like the Filipino Chego (Roy Choi's rice bowl spot in Far East Plaza), it's interesting. I like it because it's these young kids with gusto, they really knock it out of the park.
Go Get Em Tiger
Los Feliz, Larchmont
AC: I'm looking forward to Ria Wilson's menu because she's doing a bunch of riffs on Filipino food and implementing it into a brunch menu. They just opened in September, but judging by her menu and photos of her food, I'm like, "This is going to be the best fucking breakfast restaurant in all of LA!" And I know breakfast. Hopefully they just kill it forever because I can see her food resonating with everyone.
Smorgasburg, Tarzana, $$
AC: They're Filipino-owned and operated, and their ice cream is phenomenal. Ube waffle cone. Bomb. They represent Filipino food at Smorgasburg really well. Their stuff is pretty addictive.
Image courtesy of Danny Jensen
Crème Caramel LA
Sherman Oaks, Silver Lake $$
AC: Christine is an awesome person and her desserts are so good. Her creme caramel is the best. She always showcases it whenever there's a Filipino event and that's the one thing I eat like crack, man. She's just opened in Silver Lake with the Found Coffee people.
The Park's Finest BBQ
Echo Park, $$
AC: I eat at Park's Finest a whole lot. I try to go there or my girlfriend will go and pick it up a lot. Hands down favorite is the beef short ribs, but they only have it on the weekends. The coconut beef is really good, I like their pork ribs and their sausage. And their cornbread bibingka is a genius dish, that's something you take to the grave. It's super good.
East Hollywood, Eagle Rock, Panorama City, Norwalk, $
AC: We'll go there when we're drunk and eat fried chicken, Filipino spaghetti, corned beef sliders, just the trashiest Filipino stuff you can eat. But it's so good.
AC: I go there instead of Dollar Hits (a grill-your-own-skewers Filipino food truck) because they have the same deal ($1 per skewer) and there's a lot less people. And I'll order like 50 BBQ pork skewers, then pick it up and go home to eat it with my family. It's one of the oldest Filipino restaurants in the city.
Santa Monica, $$$
AC: Jeremy Fox now has calamansi koshu (a citrus-chile condiment), which is something that LASA has been doing. So, we're starting to infect mainstream menus. If we're talking new school, that's as new school as you can get.
Featured image of LASA's Monkfish a La Plancha by Wyatt Conlon