A Gorgeous Mix Of Flavors: Filipino Food’s Growing Popularity In Los Angeles
Filipino cuisine is not new to Los Angeles but there’s a newfound, growing spotlight for it in the mainstream. In as early as the 1920s, large immigration from the Philippines to California led to a block of downtown land receiving the moniker “Little Manila.” In 2002, the area divided by Silver Lake and Echo Park was officially recognized as Historic Filipinotown. That being said, Filipinos have spread from the “Little Manila” of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s to suburbs like Torrance, Carson, Cerritos, Glendale and Riverside. Notably, the greater L.A. area has the highest Filipino concentrated population outside of the Philippines.
So, why is it that Filipino foods are just now achieving the sort of popularity of other trendy L.A. foods? Until the recent openings of key Filipino restaurants in popular locations, Pinoy dishes and flavors were widespread but stuck specifically to the aforementioned high-density Filipino communities. Lately, however, Filipino cuisine has become available in more wildly diverse areas, so the masses can get a taste of this incredibly flavorful food —sometimes for the first time, as is the case for this writer.
Both Rose and Chef Don explained to me that the uniqueness of Pinoy food comes from the compounding of cultural influences based on the history of the Philippines. The main influences are Chinese and Spanish. What is particularly interesting is that the influence of the Spanish brings with it both Moorish and Islamic characteristics. According to Chef Don, this influence is due to Spain’s history prior to colonizing the islands. The food is heavy in these flavors: black pepper, garlic, vinegar and onions, among others as well. L.A.’s Filipino dining scene is a mixture of traditional, longstanding staples and newer, fusion-style pop-ups. I don’t discriminate; I love both styles.
Silog: A rice bowl with egg either fried or mixed in.
Pandesal: Sweat bread loaf, usually served hot with butter or jams.
Pork Sisig: A chopped pork hash made of pork belly or other fatty pork parts mixed with peppers and onions.
Fish Sauce: An extremely salty liquid made by fermenting fish. Used in cooking, dipping and pouring on foods.
You may have thought I was through talking about grilling and barbecue after my last article, but Dollar Hits in Historic Filipinotown had me coming back. Some habits are unshakable. This time, however, I was doing the cooking. But before you go on thinking this is about to be a review on my own cooking, let me explain.
Dollar hits is a unique dining experience in a corner strip mall where customers buy meat skewers for $1 a pop and then grill them on charcoal grills out in the parking lot. Unlike Korean BBQ that many of you, most likely, are familiar with, the meat at Dollar Hits does not come raw. It comes cooked just enough, but it’s up to each diner how much char their meat gets. A factor that made this experience so unique and exciting was the clientele: all Filipino aside from my brother, Harrison, and myself and very excited to give advice.
The first piece of advice I got was something I will never forget: the owner’s recommendation to try balut — or soft-boiled embryo. They all told me, “Don’t look at it before you eat it; you’ll see the duck and it will scare you.” I cracked the egg, didn’t look at the animal fetus within and took it back like a shot. I should note, balut is a very common food in the Philipines, but it wasn’t quite for me. Many of our fellow diners laughed when they learned I tried balut, and I’m glad I did.
Daughter of the owners, Rose, spoke to us at the end of the meal, and much of the conversation had to be translated by her friend — and a regular of the store — Grace. They explained the transition from storefront table stand, to food truck, to brick and mortar establishment — all in the same parking lot. They explained that this is the street food one would eat in the Philippines.
Beyond balut, a huge variety of skewered meat stared back at Harrison and me. We tried everything from normal pork to chicken feet — good flavor, but mainly cartilage and bone. We tried kwek-kwekee — breaded quail egg — fish balls, lobster balls, pork liver, bbq pork, bbq chicken, chicken feet and chicken butt. Our favorites, unsurprisingly, were the pork and chicken skewers. Surprisingly, other favorites were chicken butt and pork liver. We grilled, ate and laughed with two new friends that we met in the parking lot. Harrison said it was “the coolest eating experience I’ve had.”
The brainchild of Chef Barb Batiste, this Sawtelle spot is in its infancy, opening in January of this year. Sawtelle, typically known for Japanese cuisine and culture, is a popular hub for good food. Chef Barb, riding the success of her popular dessert operation B Sweet Dessert Bar, transitions from baker to chef to deliver Filipino flavors to a large audience with approachable dishes. This trendy spot has excelled at exposing a wider audience to Pinoy cuisine — myself included. I met with an LMU alumnus, Garrett Snyder (’09), who recommended we try the new place.
Luckily for me, Big Boi offered a combo, always my favorite food option, allowing me to try different things in my first Filipino food experience. I got the “bigz” combo, which comes with two meats of your choice, a side and a wonderful pandesal — a sweet bread roll. My meats were pork sisig and chicken adobo, two standards of Filipino comfort food. I opted to split my side 50/50 between garlic fried rice and pancit noodles.
The meats blew me away. Pork sisig is a hash of sorts, made of chopped pork belly tossed with peppers. It’s the perfect ratio of fat to meat, which is often a risk with pork belly. The menu says “just a kick,” in regards to the flavor, and this is perfectly correct — the spice adds a delicious accent. The chicken adobo, too, was delicious: garlicky, gingery and totally tender pulled chicken cooked in a soy sauce-based marinade.
I topped both meats with a bit of traditional Filipino fish sauce, adding a flavorful, salty element to my meats. I mixed bites of the meats with the garlic fried rice and pancit rice noodles. While both were tasty, I’d opt for full garlic rice on my next visit. Even though a typical eater would assume pandesal to be salty, based on its name, it’s actually sweet and best served hot.
Sari Sari Store
Tucked away in the Hill Street side of Downtown’s Grand Central Market is one of the simplest, yet most delicious lunches available in the city, served at a spot whose name translates to “whatever.”
Sari Sari specializes in Filipino food for the masses without sacrificing tradition or flavor. Similar to the operation at Big Boi, Sari Sari is fairly recent and is helping in Pinoy food’s movement into the limelight. Known primarily for rice bowls — silog, in Tagalog — patrons choose one of the various meat options to be served over rice and a fried egg.
Chef Don Dalao was kind enough to speak with me about the restaurant and explained that opening a joint like Sari Sari had been a dream of owners Margarita and Walter Manzke. Margarita, already an acclaimed chef, is from the Philippines and longed for an outlet to make her homeland’s food, and make them well. He also explained that a lot of the flavor of Filipino food came out of necessity and circumstance.
A lot of recipes were developed pre-refrigeration, so liquids like fish sauce and vinegar were used to keep meats fresh and pickle vegetables. Additionally, he explains Filipino cooks have never been afraid to use many parts of animals that people may not think to use. A perfect example of this is Sari Sari’s pork sisig. Where other places may use strictly pork belly, Sari Sari uses parts of the pig head, like the snout.
I ordered the pork sisig silog and a calamnsi soda — a Filipino citrus fruit, tastes like kumquat. The pork sisig was delicious, and it mixed perfectly with the garlic rice and sunny-side-up egg, especially with a few douses of fish sauce. I took two friends, Will and Kevin, who ordered the same and enjoyed their dishes as well. We also shared a bag of Filipino beer nuts — caramelized peanuts seasoned with garlic and chili powder. Knowing, with hindsight, that I was eating pig snout — among other head parts — has not changed my opinion of the dish at all: it was excellent.
With a similar attitude to that of Big Boi and Sari Sari, Silog is “focusing on comfort food and caters to the modern palate but still feels like home cooking” familiar to those who grew up with the cuisine and approachable for those who haven’t. Living up to this ideal, Silog exists in a part of Torrance/Carson that might as well steal the title of Historic Filipinotown. Like Sari Sari, Silog focuses on silog rice bowls, as its name might indicate. We made the trek on a Friday evening — myself, my girlfriend Emma and a couple of friends, Reed and Alyssa. Lucky for us, Alyssa grew up in a Pinoy household and was a hugely important and enthusiastic guide for us. She taught us the importance of vinegar to Filipino dishes, dousing everything she ate in the special white vinegar infused with peppers, onions and garlic. We aptly followed suit.
I quickly ordered my new favorite: pork sisig silog. It didn’t disappoint. Charred, salty pork belly meat mixed perfectly with the added vinegar and pickled onions. The sisig was the perfect heavenly balance of fat, meat and char. Entirely enjoyable, filling and criminally cheap. I also tried an order of lumpia — meat-filled Pinoy egg rolls — which I would highly recommend. I was kicking myself for not ordering lumpia at all my previous stops.
Beyond the incredible meal, Alyssa showed us around a local Filipino supermarket, Seafood City. In a similar experience to the one I had at Dollar Hits, our group was the only non-Filipinos in the market. We entered the adjoining bakery and ordered some incredible and unique desserts, under the advice of Alyssa. Silog aside, the night ended full of Pinoy food, language and culture.