Daniel Navarro

Los Angeles restaurants Lasa and El Cochinito are teaming up for a multi-day lechon party.

Andy Wang
August 24, 2017

L.A. restaurants Lasa and El Cochinito are joining forces for a Filipino-Cuban lechon fest during Labor Day weekend. The two-night celebration, billed as El Lasanito, will offer lechon—roasted suckling pigs—at Lasa in Chinatown's Far East Plaza (727 N Broadway) on Sunday, September 3 and at El Cochinito (3508 Sunset Blvd, 323-668-0737) in Silver Lake on Monday, September 4.

The pork showcase will come after a week-long process that includes brining, marinating, drying and roasting. Lasa is planning a Cebu-style lechon marinated in lemongrass, garlic and leeks that they will serve with sukang sili (spicy Filipino vinegar) and housemade mang tomas (pork-liver sauce). El Cochinito's lechon asado, marinated in lime, garlic and cumin, will be served with garlicky mojo. Side dishes will include rice and beans, plantains, smashed cucumbers (with sugarcane vinaigrette and crispy shallots) and grilled corn brushed with savory coconut cream. For dessert, Lasa will collaborate on a calamansi flan.

Guests will be able to pair their $38 family-style feast with $5 drinks like San Miguel beer, sangria or a guanabana-and-sake slushie.

"Everything's going to be fairly priced because we want people to hang out," says Chase Valencia, who runs Lasa with his brother Chad.

Chad, the chef at Lasa, is looking forward to a couple nights of revelry. Compared to the elegant plating of modern Filipino food at Lasa on other evenings, El Lasanito will be "more lax."

"It's definitely different," Chad says. "I think it's a lot less cerebral, if you will. It's more fun. I definitely think our food's pretty rustic to begin with, but this is the other side of that."

El Lasanito wil be a party showcasing two pork-loving cultures and two restaurants with similar values. When Lasa and El Cochinito talk about family-style dining, it really means something to them.

That's the thing about food in L.A., a city that embraces immigrant families and their wonderful flavors. Food in L.A. bridges all kinds of gaps and brings people together. On the surface, Lasa, which started as a pop-up in 2013 and opened permanently earlier this year, might not seem like it has a lot in common with El Cochinito, which has been slinging Cuban food in Silver Lake since 1988.

But they overlap in many ways. Both are family-owned businesses that honor their creators' heritage. The dishes they serve are from countries nearly 10,000 miles apart, but a lot of the flavors are similar. Growing up in L.A., Chase and Chad often ate at Cuban restaurants with their parents. There would be guava cheese rolls, potato balls and empanadas from famed Cuban bakery Porto's at most of the family parties they attended.

Chase and Chad didn't even realize that Porto's was Cuban until they were teenagers. Visiting Porto's and seeing Cuban sandwiches blew their minds.

"Imagine my shock," Chase says. "All my life, I thought this was Filipino food, straight up. The parallels were that tight to me."

Years later, when Chad was working at Canelé, he hit it off with another young cook there, Daniel Navarro. Navarro would later help the Valencias at their Lasa pop-up dinners. Navarro respected their hustle because his family, his career, his entire life was built around a woman who started selling food to her neighborhood even before she even had a restaurant.

Navarro's grandmother, Gladys Gutierrez, was the daughter of a chef and restaurateur in Cuba. Gutierrez immigrated to America in the 1960s. She raised her family for a couple decades and then started cooking for a living in the mid-'80s. Working out of her home kitchen in Silver Lake, she made family-sized trays of meat, rice and beans, other sides and dessert. The Cuban community in the neighborhood loved her food and she soon started serving customers in surrounding neighborhoods as well.

She outgrew her own kitchen and so she made a deal with a Mexican restaurant, El Cochinito, to use its kitchen in the mornings. The owner of the restaurant quickly realized that Gutierrez was serving more food than he was and offered to sell her the restaurant.

Gutierrez, with help from her sister, took over the restaurant in 1988 and El Cochinito has been selling Cuban pork ever since.

Now Navarro runs the restaurant. He grew up idolizing his grandmother. He went shopping with her, picked up bread with her, talked to her about cooking. Gutierrez later helped Navarro pay for culinary school. Navarro's parents weren't sure about his decision to become a chef, but he and his grandmother were united in his quest.

Navarro always saw how his grandmother used food to keep her family close.

"Every time the entire family was together, it was at her house and it was around her cooking," he says.

So after Gutierrez died in 2014, Navarro realized he had to take over. His uncle had found a buyer for El Cochinito, but there was no way Navarro was going to let the restaurant leave his family.

"It would have been heartbreaking for the entire family," he says. "I felt like it was my responsibility to keep it."

So Navarro, who was cooking in New York when he heard El Cochinito might be sold, told his girlfriend that they needed to move back to L.A immediately. A few days later, he was at El Cochinito, where it all began for him as a child and where he's happy to spend his adult life.

So on Labor Day, Navarro will toast his abuela and honor her labor. He will also toast the hard work of his friends at Lasa.

"Seeing them open a restaurant after all these years, this is a nice moment," Navarro says. "They've got their spot established and I'm back in the neighborhood. It's a party to celebrate their success."

"I think the exciting thing about owning a restaurant and just having a lot of peers is getting to do stuff like this," Chad says.

"Because of this city we live in, we can make these mashups and collaborations," Chase adds. "It's naturally who we are as Angelenos. We celebrate our diversity because it's who we are, period."