L.A.'s LASA Champions Filipino Food by Breaking the Rules
Filipino food has been making waves in the international food scene for several years, and it’s been bringing a surge of emotions in many Filipinos back in the motherland. There’s pride, for sure (“Wow, a Filipino restaurant was number two on Bon Appetit Magazine’s Hot 10: Best New Restaurants 2016 list?”), but there’s also a feeling of possession and protectiveness (“OMG, I can’t believe Bon Appetit bastardized our beloved halo-halo!”). As Filipinos we beam with pride whenever one of our fellow kababayans succeed on a global scale, yet we also have a tendency to timidly hide behind other cultures and their food, never wanting to represent our own country or feeling slightly ashamed of our signature turo-turo restaurants with its slapdash presentation.
Those unfamiliar with Filipino fare are limited to the typical adobo, pancit, or the fear-inducing balut. There's nothing wrong with these classics, but the limited range does put Filipino cuisine in a box—and keeps it there. While Filipino restaurants in Manila have already started breaking through these barriers, Filipino restaurants abroad are also going beyond tradition—and yielding surprisingly fantastic results globally.
The Filipino food scene in Los Angeles is a perfect example of Filipino food breaking limits internationally. The Filipino-American population in Los Angeles is arguably one of the biggest communities outside the Philippines and you’ll easily find Jollibee, Gerry’s Grill, and Max’s Restaurant branches, plus the quintessential mom-and-pop turo-turo joints in nondescript strip malls. This is what defines Filipino food in an international environment, and it’s easy to see why Filipino food never fully appeals to those who didn’t grow up with it. Yet a new generation of Filipino-Americans are looking to change this, working tirelessly to expand peoples’ perception of what Filipino food is.
One duo dedicated to bringing out the best in Filipino cuisine are brothers Chad and Chase Valencia, the first-generation Filipino Americans behind the wildly popular Los Angeles-based Filipino restaurant LASA. Chad, 32, is the brilliant chef in the kitchen while Chase, 33, is the charismatic general manager who takes care of the front of house. Thanks to their Kapampangan roots, food is essentially in their blood and growing up with a family that placed so much focus on food helped fuel their culinary passion.
LASA initially started out as a pop-up restaurant, already garnering buzz for their unique twist on classic Filipino dishes (think longganisa with clams steamed in San Miguel beer). Falling under the radar of Filipino food advocate Alvin Cailan (the mastermind behind trendy food favorite, Eggslut), the Valencia brothers were invited to do pop-ups at Alvin’s incubator space called Unit 120, located in the heart of LA’s Chinatown. The pop-ups were an instant hit, garnering stellar reviews from prestigious food critics like the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold, who included their OG Pancit (made with egg noodles, calamansi butter, and patis-cured egg yolk) in his top 10 best dishes of 2016.
Reference points are skewed for a foreigner eating Filipino food and just thinking it’s okay, but at LASA—a restaurant that is Filipino food with a California influence—they’re able to alter peoples’ perspective on this perplexing cuisine. But first, understand what LASA is trying to do. They’re not trying to change Filipino food; instead they’re trying to expand on the ideas and notions of what Filipino food can be.
Chase emphasizes that LASA is modern Filipino-American food—not traditional Filipino food. “I tell people when they’re dining that my brother and I grew up eating Filipino food, but professionally we worked in California kitchens where there is a focus on produce and certain techniques,” explains Chase. “We play up our strengths: our memories and our professional life.” There’s no pretentiousness at LASA, and Chase’s job as front of the house is to recalibrate guests and their perceptions of Filipino food.
Twice-Cooked Octopus Sinigang
Brown Rice Arroz Caldo
As for Chad, he focuses on regionality. “We’re from Pampanga—a place that uses tamarind or guava for their sinigang—but we’re based in LA. So what grows in LA? Rhubarb!” exclaims Chad. And he expertly uses rhubarb for his Twice-Cooked Octopus Sinigang, which adds a wonderful, subtle tartness that is clean and refreshing—and so Los Angeles. Dishes like the Wok Roasted Broccolini with bagoong XO sauce and crispy rice plays on the nuances of Filipino flavors yet still highlighting a very Western ingredient while the Brown Rice Arroz Caldo caters to vegetarians—again, very Los Angeles—yet tastes extremely meaty thanks to the mushrooms, umami, and kombu Chad uses.
“Nowadays people cook sinigang using Mama Sita’s mix—is that authentic?” asks Chase. “Was that how we did it in 1898?"
While some might think Chad is bastardizing Filipino food, what he’s actually doing is more old-school in a sense that a real chef is more inclined to use whatever ingredient is around them. “Unripe pineapple was one of the souring agents that people used to make sinigang, which is what led me to believe that there must be multiple variations I didn’t know about. And that’s when I tried making sinigang with rhubarb,” says Chad. “With laing, I use kale because it’s so abundant here and would taste fresher than frozen taro leaves.” Chad is innately intuitive, which allows him to be more honest with himself and his ingredients. The food at LASA is Chad’s expression of himself, and this is felt through every single dish that is churned out.
Pork Cheek Caldereta
Those unfamiliar with Filipino food might look at LASA as innovative, yet the issue lies in Filipinos who scoff at the idea of Charred Cauliflower with sawsawan yogurt and currant atchara or Lumpia Sariwa made with a brown rice crepe and stuffed with roasted seasonal vegetables and black kale.
To the Valencia brothers, authenticity is different from tradition. Chase adds that the way people talk about authenticity is experience-based, whereas for others authenticity could be tradition.
“We’ve had customers—Filipinos—who straight up didn’t like our food and was even telling the table next to them how the sinigang wasn’t real because it wasn’t that sour,” says Chase. “I politely explained that what we do at LASA is apply Filipino techniques using American produce, so tastes might not be quite what they’re accustomed to.” The dudes at LASA aren’t trying to compete with Mom or Lola’s cooking—which they know will always be number one. To the Valencia brothers, authenticity is different from tradition. Chase adds that the way people talk about authenticity is experience-based, whereas for others authenticity could be tradition.
“Nowadays people cook sinigang using Mama Sita’s mix—is that authentic?” asks Chase. “Was that how we did it in 1898? If you’re going to question authenticity, then what needs to happen is that everyone needs to cook making it using tamarind broth, not using a package.”
To truly understand LASA, one must recognize their intention and see that they’re doing something positive with Filipino food. These young Filipino-Americans are expressing their love for country, with the hopes that when Filipinos dine at LASA they feel a sense of pride and ownership. The Valencia brothers know that there is beauty within the Philippines and within Filipinos, and they believe LASA can serve as a reminder of that. They want their fellow kababayans to think: I am so proud to be a Filipino.