Brothers Chad and Chase Valencia opened Lasa in Los Angeles to solve a fairly simple problem.
“There were no Filipino restaurants for us to work at, so we created one,” says Chad, who is the chef at the pop-up-turned-restaurant. The brothers, L.A.-bred Filipino-Americans, are simultaneously showcasing their heritage and embracing the bountiful produce of California.
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When I pop by Lasa, Chad is trimming “some really pretty broccolini from Finley Farms.” The chef, who learned how to cook seasonally when he was at Canelé and then went on to work at Sqirl, chars the broccolini in a wok and seasons it by adding Lasa’s own XO sauce that’s made with a salted shrimp paste, bagoong.
“In a lot of Filipino food, vegetables are almost never cooked to any Western standard of ‘al dente,’” Chad says. “We try really hard to keep the integrity of the vegetables via presentation and cooking technique. It’s rare that any of our vegetables are mushy.”
Kalderata, a Filipino stew that Lasa makes with pork cheeks, traditionally requires stewing vegetables in the same pot until they melt into a thick and mushy sauce. At Lasa, they cook the peas, pea tendrils, carrots and potatoes separately.
“We love our vegetables very much, and we love to eat them properly,” Chad says.
What Lasa serves, as you might have guessed by now, is seasonal Filipino-American food.
“It’s hard to be a professional chef in Los Angeles and not go to the fucking farmers market,” says Chad, who will regularly change his menu based on whichever produce is at its peak.
Lasa serves twice-cooked octopus with sinigang, a sour soup that’s traditionally flavored with tamarind or unripe fruits like guava and mango—instead, they use rhubarb from the market.
On weeks that rhubarb is harder to find, Chad might take the dish off the menu.
“We come from market-driven, chef-driven California restaurants,” says Chase, who previously worked at Wolfgang Puck Catering, Sqirl and Forage. “Lasa is really a culmination of that and our upbringing as second-generation Filipino-Americans.”
Even when they were kids feasting at home on their mom’s cooking or at family parties in Southern California, the brothers were thoughtful about food.
“Our conversations after we were done eating were always about food,” says Chase, who is the general manager of the restaurant. “It was part of our identity.”
Now that they have their own 42-seat restaurant, they can channel the taste memories of their youth and filter those flavors through a thoroughly modern and Californian lens. But the Valencias, who first opened Lasa as a pop-up and started serving dinner as an actual restaurant on April 12, want to make it clear where they come from.
When you walk into Lasa, located in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, you’ll see family photos: parents, grandparents, weddings, homes in the Philippines. There’s an image of first-grader Chad and second-grader Chase on a trip to the Philippines, wearing overalls in front of their grandparents’ store.
“One difference at Lasa is that we’re brothers, and we’re pushing our food and our culture,” Chase says, as he shows me the images. “It’s ingrained into our concept. This is actually our family tree. The idea of this place is it’s an extension of our home.”
Lasa, which means “taste” in Tagalog, features light-green walls inspired by a museum in their family’s province of Pampanga. On one of the walls hangs a large image of an indigenous woman from the Mandaya tribe in Mindanao. Chase found the picture in a book about tapestry and textiles and couldn’t get it out of his head.
“She’s really important; she’s part of the history of Lasa,” Chase says. “We used her image for our menus and business cards. And we always said once we opened a restaurant, we had to have her there. The image of her with her hands, the beadwork—there’s just something about it.”
The photo shows only part of the woman’s face, adding a layer of mystery.
“Look at her hands, the work she’s put in,” Chase says. “I think we kind of dig deep into our roots at Lasa, our food and our culture. And, in some capacity, we relate to this piece. It’s back to the roots of working with your hands.”
Lasa celebrates the building blocks of Filipino food: pork, seafood and acid. Those three components create umami-bomb dishes that balance saltiness, sweetness, spiciness, sourness and funkiness. Lasa’s house-made XO sauce features garlic, shallots, ginger and salted pork (unsmoked bacon or pancetta, as well as Chinese sausage), along with the salted shrimp paste for something that’s “very complex, umami-rich, aromatic, slightly funky, slightly sweet, too,” Chad says.
Chad recalls working at San Francisco’s Contigo, a restaurant that weaves together traditional Catalan dishes and progressive California cuisine featuring Spanish influences. Given the similarities between Spanish food and Filipino food, Chad’s experience at Contigo fortified his belief that he could eventually open his own restaurant—and gave him some inspiration. One “epiphany,” Chase recalls, is when Chad and chef friends Ria Dolly Barbosa and Matt Wilson made their own longanisa, a spicy pork sausage.
So Chad served longanisa with clams steamed in San Miguel beer for Lasa’s first pop-up, located at a family backyard, in 2013. Chad and Chase’s years of research about Filipino food paid off, and their pop-ups kept getting bigger: 30 people twice a month at the Highland Café, and 120 people once a month at Elysian.
“It took eight to 10 days to fill those seats at Elysian at first,” Chase says. “By the end of our run there, it took five to 10 minutes.”
Eventually, the Valencias ran into Eggslut founder Alvin Cailan at a Filipino food conference—that’s when everything changed. Cailan, who’s also Filipino-American, had heard a lot about Lasa but hadn’t yet managed to check out one of the sold-out pop-ups. Soon after, Cailan went to a one-off pop-up Lasa threw with the crew from Irenia, a like-minded Orange County group that has gone on to open its own highly-regarded Filipino restaurant.
“We just vibed super hard,” Chase says of Cailan, who quickly offered the Valencias a residency at his Unit 120 restaurant-incubator space at Far East Plaza. “He showed us the space. From there, it changed the game.”
Lasa took off as a Thursday-through-Saturday-night pop-up, even though it was serving $20-plus dishes in a price-conscious neighborhood with limited dinner traffic. Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold wrote a glowing review of Lasa. Momentum built, and Lasa kept getting busier. The Valencias asked Cailan if they could take more nights. Cailan responded by offering to vacate the space, and now Lasa is there serving dinner Wednesday through Sunday and lunch on Tuesday through Sunday. Cailan is moving Unit 120 to another location in Far East Plaza.
“Bottom line, the dude’s got our backs,” Chase says. “From day one, he was like, ‘I want to help you guys open a restaurant. I want to give you a platform.’ It’s a brotherhood.”
It turns out a lot of people had their backs. The Valencias, who saved money from their pop-ups, raised some cash from family and friends. Another friend, interior designer Dana Benoit, helped recreate the Unit 120 space.
“Chad’s not a chef at Rustic Canyon, or, like, a celebrity chef or Top Chef,” Chase says. “I’m not a manager at Bestia or a big-name hospitality group. We’re just normal-ass dudes who want to hustle and push our culture.”
These regular dudes have managed to get a pop-up reviewed by their city’s most influential food critic, all while convincing old-school Filipinos that Asian flavors and California ingredients belong together. They’ve convinced guests that paying the same amount for Filipino noodles as they would pay for a bowl of pasta at Bestia makes sense. They’ve taken Filipino food out of the margins and created their own clientele in Chinatown, where the Valencias used to rage at hip-hop parties. They thought about opening Lasa in a hipper neighborhood, but Chinatown ended up making the most sense.
“One diner was like, ‘You guys could be in Silver Lake or the Arts District or Echo Park; but you guys being in Chinatown, you bring people here, you bring a dynamic,’” Chase says. “The way the community of Chinatown has embraced us…it felt natural. And we’re kind of Asian.”
Chase laughs. The Valencias have dreamed about opening their own restaurant since they were teenagers working at an ambitious mom-and-pop restaurant in Chino called Owen’s Bistro. Chase remembers eating mostly at Taco Bell back then, so dishes like bacon-wrapped filet mignon were revelatory to the Valencias—as was working together.
“We felt this really strong energy from each other,” Chase says, and that energy only intensified as the Valencias spent years thinking about how they would update the food of their childhood.
Chase and Chad are full of adrenaline on the day I visit because they’re serving dinner as an actual restaurant for the first time in less than six hours. Their fast-casual lunch service—with noodle bowls, a rich dish (featuring soul-warming, vinegar-braised chicken with fried garlic and scallions) and a vegetable bowl—started a week earlier. 30 seconds after our interview, Chase is behind the window, ready to take orders.