It is an unexpected way to start my day, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. I came into United Bread and Pastry to pick up some traditional Filipino treats, perfect to begin a day of exploration here in Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown. As always, I introduce myself, say that I’m a writer doing a story on the neighborhood, and ask what I should try. Ten minutes later, my bag is full of turon – a sweet egg roll with plantain inside – a brown sugar sticky rice called biko, tamarind candy, rolled cakes, empanadas, and a steamed bun the size of my face. It’s much more than I was expecting to buy, but hey, I’m here. I ask how much the total is as I pull out my credit card. “Free,” the man replies. I insist on paying. “Give us a fair review, and do justice to our people. It’s a blessing from my family to you.”
For anyone who has Filipino friends – I count myself lucky enough to have some – this is the sort of warmth we have come to expect. The Filipino diaspora is full of stories of caring, of caretaking, of kindness, of decency. There is a reason that so many in nursing, or in elder care, come from that magical island nation on the other side of the Pacific. Have you ever been on a cruise? Chances are that your best memories of warm encounters with staff include a large percentage of Filipinos. As I said, I was surprised at such a reception from a man I’d never met, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. (The food was also all awesome, but a bit more on that later.)
Of the historic cultural neighborhoods I’ve explored so far in Los Angeles, Historic Filipinotown is unique. It is less a neighborhood than a concept, extending arms into several LA enclaves like Silverlake and Echo Park. United Bread and Pastry, for instance, sits squarely in Silverlake, while the remainder of my stops are on the other side of US-101 – and even those are spread out enough to make walking between them daunting, if not outright impossible on a day like today that will see 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
The first wave of Filipino migration to Los Angeles was in 1923, and the following decade brought the population to about 6,000. Those early immigrants lived adjacent to Little Tokyo. However, once Filipinos were allowed to buy land in the United States in the early 1950s – can we take a moment to just reflect on how recent that is, a point before which our laws were so discriminatory as to not even permit the owning of land by certain minorities? – much of the community moved to an area between Temple Street and Beverly Boulevard centered around Glendale Boulevard and Alvarado Street. Over subsequent decades the community would spread out.
In 2011, Historic Filipinotown was officially recognized as a Preserve America community, and just this year, 2022, an awesome archway was built over Beverly Boulevard marking one of the unofficial entrances to the neighborhood.
A couple short blocks from the archway is Unidad Park. It’s a cute urban park, but what stands out most is a huge mural done on the wall of the neighboring building. This mural, painted in 1995, traces the history of the Filipino-American story. Filipino farmers who organized with Cesar Chavez are portrayed. Famous Filipino-Americans are involved. Scenes pertinent to Filipino immigration are painted. It is a perfect introduction to a people, and something I wish each of these neighborhoods had.
As always, a feature of exploring a neighborhood like this is a visit to a local market. I choose Temple Seafood Market, which, while specializing in fresh/frozen seafood, also has a lot of Filipino specialties. While the fish flavored crackers were definitely not to my taste, other goodies like pandan cakes and mangosteen juice were wonderful.
For most Americans, myself included, Filipino food is a bit out of the mainstream. Sure, we may have had chicken adobo, the national dish. But beyond that? It’s a mystery for most of us. I head right next door to Dollar Hits for some traditional favorites. Again, I ask for recommendations, and leave laden down with more than I can eat. Chicken adobo, of course. Pork belly in a sauce that’s almost black. Sour soup with beef. And baby squids served whole in a sauce of soy and vinegar (I think). While many southeast Asian cuisines use acid liberally, most utilize citrus. Filipino food is notable for its use of vinegars. It’s a weird sensation for my palate, but not an unpleasant one. The squid was the standout, but all was good.
On the other end of the food spectrum, and on the other end of Historic Filipinotown (on the east side of Glendale Boulevard) sits The Park’s Finest, a restaurant serving a fusion of Filipino flavors with American BBQ. It’s one of my favorite spots in the city, though Covid saw it completely closed. Rather than open for takeout as so many other restaurants did, The Park’s Finest chose instead to participate in Feed the Frontliners, providing more than 100,000 meals over a year and a half. The front wall of the restaurant, now fully reopened, is full of thank you letters from grateful recipients of needed sustenance.
I am here for two of my favorite dishes in the city: coconut beef (creamy and spicy and perfect) and their cornbread, made with coconut milk and steamed in a banana leaf. I add pulled pork with flavors reminiscent of adobo (and vinegar based BBQ sauce, of course) and smoked Gouda mac and cheese. It is a feast, one I try to have every few months, all the more so with the good human work the place does.
While waiting for my food to be ready, I pop next door. Thunderbolt is a bar owned by The Park’s Finest (you can eat your food here if you’d like) and has been recognized as one of the top cocktail bars in North America. If you’re here for Filipino flavors, they have a cocktail made with bitter-melon that is significantly less bitter when you mix the chili powder on top into it. But for me, the highlight is – shockingly – their home-carbonated-and-canned beverages. Try the peach pecan bourbon one. It is so smooth. I go home with a few for later.
Back at home, I polish off the last of my pastries from this morning. While the tamarind candy was a bit too sweet for me, everything else – the turon especially – was wonderful. I contemplate my day of exploration. Historic Filipinotown doesn’t have the cohesive identity of some of the other ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, but it is no less terrific. The food was great, new, and exciting. More importantly, the people were amazing. It is what I have come to expect from the Filipino community, and just one of the reasons I am so glad that so many of them have decided to call my hometown their home as well.
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