This Chinatown Pop-Up Restaurant Wants To Start A Filipino Food Movement In L.A.
A Filipino-inspired pop-up has taken up residency in a new restaurant incubator space in Chinatown, and both are helping to ignite a Filipino food movement in L.A.At the beginning of this year, chef Alvin Cailan opened up a new venue in the neighborhood's Far East Plaza—also home to Chego and the first installment of Pok Pok LA—designed to help aspiring chefs and restaurateurs develop new concepts. Cailan—the man behind the wildly popular breakfast spot Eggslut and original co-founder of Ramen Champ—straightforwardly dubbed the space 'Unit 120' after the storefront's address in the two-story plaza. He's also keeping the design of the restaurant space fairly neutral to provide a blank canvas for chefs to experiment, and opened up the space with an on-going weekend residency featuring popular restaurant pop-up LASA, which combines classic French training with recipes inspired by their Filipino heritage.
Each night of the week at Unit 120 is designated for a distinct development purpose: Mondays for industry only brainstorming with fried chicken, Tuesdays for chefs who haven't had a space before, and Wednesday and Thursday for more established chefs and restaurateurs to experiment before investing in or finding backers for a space of their own. Cailan's also using the takeaway window at Unit 120 to develop his own Filipino-inspired lunch concept Amboy. Meanwhile, Friday through Sunday is reserved for longer-term residencies like LASA. Cailan recently spoke with LAist to talk about the inspiration behind the incubator:
They say success is where opportunity meets preparation. So, I want this place to be where an opportunity is offered to someone who is prepared, like a chef who's ready to move on to the next level. And if the outcome is successful, I'll push for the right investors for them if I know people, or if they have people, they can test those waters out. And I feel like if I had that opportunity, I would be mentally younger, I'd be less stressed and ultimately, have more money in my pocket.
Prior to his success with the Eggslut stall at Grand Central Market, Cailan explains that he struggled for three years to get the food truck version of the breakfast spot off the ground. Far from the overnight success that many—including wide-eyed aspiring chefs—might suppose, he faced a wide variety of challenges, including financial and even mechanical, once finding himself stranded roadside with a broken down truck for eight hours.
"I'm taking everything I learned from Eggslut and Ramen Champ, and implementing it in one place and, in a way, consulting so that they don't make the same mistakes that I made," Cailan explains. "You're not going to have an overnight success. It takes time to develop. It takes a lot of emotional ups and downs before you end up tasting success."
Concerned with an ongoing trend of new restaurants with very expensive build-out costs failing within six months or a year, Cailan conceived of Unit 120 as a safe space where a concept can be more fully developed and realized before taking a major financial plunge. These untested and failed efforts are often based on hype, Cailan says, and when they fail, they can have tremendous effects on the L.A. food industry, particularly the sudden job losses for chefs and other employees who may have left other successful ventures.
"We make some of the best food in the country and for us to not think about sustainability scares me," Cailan says. "Because L.A. food can become a fad or it can last forever, and I want it to last forever."
Another reason why Unit 120 is an important space is that it will help out with the Filipino food movement, Cailan tells LAist. "The Filipino food scene in L.A. is almost non-existent," Cailan says.
Growing up in a Filipino household in Pico-Rivera, Cailan enjoyed the traditional Filipino dishes his parents made, but points out that most of them were from a seasoning packet. "So, I had zero knowledge of Filipino food recipes, but I grew up eating it and I loved it."
He came to understand that when many first generation Filipinos like his parents arrived in the States, they needed to make a business to survive. And while some opened restaurants, it wasn't necessarily based on craft or passion. "And that makes sense as to why Filipino food didn't quite crossover, because there was no soul in the food. But fast-forward to 25 or 30 years later, you go to nearly any major restaurant in [L.A.] and often someone of importance in the back of the house is Filipino."
Cailan goes on to explain that by inviting brothers Chad and Chase Valencia—who run LASA together—into Unit 120 for a residency, he can practice what he preaches and in turn, help the Filipino food movement:
Now a lot of us are coming back to our roots, and I'm fortunate enough to be a part of it, where I'm learning so much from all of them, and we're all learning so much from each other. We've been using very traditional French technique, and now we're implementing what we learned in our careers and we're translating it into Filipino cooking. We found the love and the care for the food. And LASA is the number one example of that for me.
Since taking up residency in January, LASA has continually packed Unit 120, offering guests a prix-fixe four-course dinner with a new menu every four weeks. Their latest menu offering features a delicious and pillowy seared kohlrabi cake served atop laing—a Filipino dish made with coconut milk, chilies and traditionally taro leaves, but here with a kohlrabi tops and kale. You'll also find a perfectly tender grilled octopus and rhubarb sinigang—a sour and savory stew. And they offer a vegetarian version of the menu as well. LAist recently had a chance to sit down to the latest menu offering and talk with the Valencia brothers—who will enthusiastically share their passion for Filipino cooking and history at your table.
What inspired you to launch LASA?
We started pop-ups almost 3 years ago as LASA at a time where there really wasn't much Filipino food in L.A. It made sense for the both of us to give it a shot. There was a void to fill in the L.A. culinary landscape and at the same time it was a natural progression for us—who have been in the industry over the last decade—to do something together representing our background and upbringing in the restaurants we've worked at.
Tell us a bit about how the concept evolved and what it's been like to transition from a pop-up to the Unit 120 incubator.
LASA has been in the works since 2010 and at that time, we were in our early 20s and too green in the game to put up something serious. We knew we had to study, do research, cook, grow up and gain some life experiences to find out what LASA was going to be. We didn't roll out with our first backyard dinner until 2013.
From there we moved on to a cafe setting in Highland Park, then spent the last eight months doing monthly dinners at Elysian. What's nice now is having somewhere to call home temporarily and have some sort of regularity. It's been extremely exciting and an incredible learning process. We're lucky to have this platform and make LASA a more regular thing.
What are some flavors and dishes that diners can look forward to?
We've launched a new menu that we're really excited about, which includes housemade chicharron with a mung bean yogurt dip and a grilled octopus and rhubarb sinigang. We're working really hard on expanding our pantry so we have new and fun ingredients to use to progress our ideas as cooks and the food as LASA. There will be the Filipino inspiration of salty, acidic and funky dishes but also the Cali market-driven clean, bright and balanced food as well.
How do you see the presence of Filipino-inspired cuisine evolving in L.A.?
It's evolving naturally and beautifully. There is a growing community and we are happy to support and be a part of it. We believe now is an inevitable time for Filipino food and the growth that's occurring here in L.A. as far as the restaurants and concepts, and also the awareness and openness diners are showing to all of it. Already there are different types of Filipino food experiences and we're looking forward to seeing what other types are going to come around the corner.
Overall, the presence of Filipino-inspired cuisine in L.A. is great. All these other Filipino concepts will serve as a platform for people to learn more about our culture, ingredients, recipes, dishes, etc. And maybe it will help Filipino food become normalized into the mainstream, like how other Asian and Southeast Asian foods have become.
What do you envision for the next steps for LASA?
Brick and Mortar!!!!!
How do you see Unit 120 benefiting other chefs and the L.A. food scene in general?
It's great, its building community and giving opportunity to other chefs who are trying to open or have concepts who want to get tested.