Historic Filipinotown Is L.A.'s Next Great Dining Neighborhood
It was 7 p.m. on Mother's Day, and everything was going to hell. Woon owner Keegan Fong had sent his mom, chef Julie Chen Fong, home to enjoy the holiday. And then Woon, a wonderful new Chinese restaurant in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown, got slammed with customers.
"There was a line out the door," Keegan says. "Everything just went wrong at once. The rice went mushy, the noodles went mushy, the pork belly fell apart, and there were tickets, like, stacked. I was just like, I don't know what the fuck to do. I've never been in this situation before. I've never been in the restaurant business."
But Keegan is a smart and sincere operator. He walked over to every table and told customers how sorry he was. He admitted that he was inexperienced. He offered to get guests beers. The diners at Woon told Keegan that they appreciated his honesty and his effort. They said that they were happy to have Woon in the neighborhood and that they would keep supporting the restaurant.
Later that night, Keegan put up an Instagram post thanking customers for being so gracious during Sunday's dinner service. Earlier that day, he had posted about Mother's Day and revealed that his mom, affectionately known as Mama Fong, had been diagnosed with breast cancer a few weeks after he signed the lease for Woon. Keegan wrote about how she underwent treatment and still found time to train the Woon staff and take care of her grandchildren. Mama Fong, who is now cancer-free, had no idea that her son was going to post this.
I visited Historic Filipinotown, also known as HiFi, last week because I wanted to tell a story about L.A.'s next great dining neighborhood. I wanted to tell you about the beef noodles, perfectly chewy and beautifully charred, that the born-in-Shanghai, raised-in-Hong Kong Mama Fong has served her family for three decades. I wanted to tell you how Woon, which is Mama Fong's first foray in the restaurant business, started as a pop-up and has turned into one of L.A.'s most exciting new restaurants. I wanted to tell you about great dishes like Woon's sausage-laden fried rice and fried tofu fishcakes.
But now I want to tell you something else, too. The challenges of opening an independent restaurant, in an era of rising costs, a tight labor market, and competition from deep-pocketed out-of-town hospitality groups, are harder than ever in L.A. And maybe the most refreshing thing about HiFi is that it's full of operators like Keegan who are ready to share the unvarnished truth about their struggles.
Let's do a roll call of some good eating-and-drinking establishments in HiFi. These aren't the only places you should visit here, but they're the Asian-American-owned businesses that recently created a map of the area, a 2.1-square-mile neighborhood near downtown, Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Koreatown. On that map are Woon, Valerie Confections, Tactile Coffee, Genever, Porridges + Puffs, Doubting Thomas, HiFi Kitchen, Boba Guys, and The Park's Finest. On the back of the map is a punch card. Get a stamp at each place and you can score an invite to a pot-luck dinner, likely in June, with food or beverages from each business.
Last Monday, many of the owners got together for a photo shoot and talked about working together to promote their neighborhood during May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
"Not all of us knew each other," says Roselma Samala, one of the three Filipina founders of cocktail bar Genever. "But there's this energy and shared history here."
"I like how all the businesses in this neighborhood are deeply personal," says Mike Yi of Tactile Coffee. "Valerie Confections can only be made by Valerie. Porridges + Puffs can only be made by Minh. There's only one Keegan's mom."
Before veteran chef Minh Phan opened Porridges + Puffs (which serves beautiful bowls of Koda Farms Kokuho Rose organic heirloom rice adorned with pickles and edible flowers) last year, she met with Samala, Valerie Confections' Valerie Gordon, and Tactile's Mike and Eric Yi. They discussed the potential of the neighborhood and how they could happily co-exist.
"I found my tribe," Phan says. "I really wanted it to be an Asian-American enclave. Not just Asian. It has to be Angelenos of a certain generation. We just all understand each other."
A lot of the businesses here took a non-traditional route toward opening their brick-and-mortar location in HiFi: Tactile served espresso out of a Mac Tools truck. Porridges + Puffs began as a pop-up inside Phan's Field Trip restaurant in Hollywood. Genever was partially funded on Kickstarter. Woon was created out of the love Keegan had for his mom's noodles, and his pop-up adventures began with an event at his uncle's antique-furniture store, JF Chen, and then moved to an alleyway in Koreatown. Keegan worked in apparel marketing and Mama Fong worked as an interpreter before they turned Woon into a restaurant.
"I wanted to own my business for the longest time," says Keegan, who's been putting in 16-hour days at Woon. "I figured, why not try the hardest thing there is?"
Keegan laughs. My bowl of beef noodles arrive, and he suggests that I eat it "Mama's way" and pour on some white vinegar and chili garlic sauce. The noodles are delicious, and the texture is perfect, I say. Mama Fong smiles proudly, but also like a woman who had no doubt I was going to enjoy this food. She tells me she never intended to have a restaurant. She's happy her son convinced her.
Tactile itself is a deeply personal business, too. The Yis, who both used to work in catering for Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, are Korean-Americans from Virginia. They serve blackstrap molasses syrup as a nod to their life in the South. Eric, who used to bake on Ludo Lefebvre's LudoBites food truck, makes excellent buttermilk biscuits at Tactile. He can only bake about two dozen at a time because he's using a portable Cadco convection oven.
"I'm familiar with this oven because we use it a lot in catering," he says. "It's an electric oven that doesn't need a gas line, which we do not have in this space. It was just something that fit into the space, and we're fortunate enough to find something that's powerful enough that we can use daily. We also bake our house-made focaccia there."
Tactile gets a little busy during my mid-afternoon visit. Eric is behind the counter alone while Mike sits and talks to me. Mike gets up immediately after we're done chatting. "I'm going to go help," he says.
L.A. is running out of neighborhoods that the national media can designate as "cool" and "authentic" and "the next big thing." HiFi feels like a place that's going to get so much attention in the near future.
Gordon, who opened Valerie Confections here in 2007, is thrilled that this has become a viable place for so many small, minority-owned, and female-owned businesses. But she, like everybody else here, knows that grittiness remains in an area where walking from one restaurant to another can mean strolling past industrial blocks with auto-repair shops, a swap meet, discount stores, and a driving school.
"It's an area that's a little bit weird, a little undefined, a little bit of a mishmash," she says. "You've got the new, the old, the pretty, and the ugly in this area. … There's been a lack of definition here. What's starting to happen is definition, and that's a really exciting thing."
When Gordon, who is half-Chinese, first opened in the neighborhood, she jokingly called the area South Silver Lake. People have walked into Tactile, seen two Korean-American brothers behind the counter, and asked if this is Koreatown. Vaka Burger, which plans to open in the same building as Tactile later this year, is calling the area Echo Park. Others call it Rampart Village, which is associated with a huge police-corruption scandal. Yelp, multiple restaurants owners tell me, designates the area as Westlake.
Whatever you call it, the candid business owners here don't shy away from talking about the area's past. Chef Johneric Concordia, who makes Filipino-inspired barbecue at The Park's Finest, has told other restaurateurs here about the history of gangs in the neighborhood and what the tags you still see here represent. Phan likes thinking about the legacy of the radicals and activists who were here. Mama Fong remembers hanging out here in the 1970s when a lot of foreign students lived in the area. She also recalls seeing many families in houses that are no longer here. This was three decades before the neighborhood became known as Historic Filipinotown.
Now, a lot of minority-owned businesses, which also include black-owned coffee shop Bloom & Plume and underground Mexican-American barbecue spot Ragtop Fern's, are redefining HiFi in their own very specific ways.
When guests ask Phan what kind of food she's serving at Porridges + Puffs, she knows that they're inquiring about her Vietnamese ethnicity. But she will reply by saying her food is Californian. If guests continue to press, she'll say that her food is nothing like her mom's Vietnamese food.
Phan wanted an all-female kitchen team with fine-dining experience. It took her eight months to get that staff, and now she's working to keep her employees interested and excited. She might move away from porridge a bit, and she plans to add breakfast soon.
"I am a big believer in a complete meal," she says. "Most Asian meals, you get a balance. You get veggies, you get beef, you get soup, you get something fried, you get all those elements. … I've been playing around with how I duplicate that for everyday diners at a reasonable price point. I think I can do it at breakfast, and I'm going to do it at dinner. That's the road I want to go on. A place people can eat four or five days a week because the menu changes every day."
What Phan is envisioning sounds like an L.A. restaurant through and through.
"I think the spirit of L.A. for a long time has been just do what you want to do," says Mike Yi of Tactile. "You kind of live and die by it, too. If you don't do well, you don't do well, but you obviously went down doing what you wanted to do, which is really nice."
Surviving, thriving, failing, adjusting, light, darkness. The owners in HiFi are ready to discuss it all. So during a half-hour chat with Phan, we talk about the casual racism of guests who think porridge should be cheap and how she could charge more if she called her dishes risotto. We talk about how she used to get beaten up by other Asian kids in L.A. for being a "banana" who spoke English and came from Wisconsin. We talk about how crazy it is to have a restaurant like Porridges + Puffs that makes its own soy sauce and spends a lot of time peeling fruit like kumquats and loquats while Phan worries about the cost of labor. We talk about working in a neighborhood where she walks employees to their cars. We talk about how she has often asked unsavory characters to hang out somewhere that's not directly in front of her restaurant or the nearby all-girls' school.
"The joy of being a woman in my 40s is I don't give a fuck," Phan says. "I just go out there and I'm like, 'What are you guys doing here?'"
She's not saying this to sound badass. She's just telling me about the type of things she has to deal with on a daily basis and how exhausted this makes her. But she stresses that she loves the neighborhood, her customers, and all of HiFi's fellow business owners.
The trajectory of HiFi's rise has surprised even the people who are most responsible for it. Over at Woon, Keegan tells me he didn't expect the neighborhood to become such a destination so quickly. Samala at Genever says this is what she hoped would occur years from now. So I guess what I'm really telling you is that you should go to this neighborhood right now if you want to see what L.A. represents and all that it can still be.
The collaborations happen easily in HiFi.
"Tactile has put their coffee in our cocktails," Samala says. "We hope to do cocktails with Minh. I'd love to get boba from Boba Guys."
When Genever opened last year, Samala and co-founder Christine Sumiller told me about how a lot of people didn't take them seriously because they were three female friends starting a business. But all the "mansplaining" fortified them—there was no way they weren't going to do this. And they knew they had the support of neighborhood mainstays like Gordon, who says she's honored that other operators talked to her before opening in HiFi.
"I want to champion their businesses as much as I can," says Gordon, who started with a chocolate company before expanding into pastries and other desserts. "A lot of places in more expensive neighborhoods have a lot of backing and investors. None of these places in HiFi do. There's something refreshing about that. This leads to people truly expressing what they want to make and how they want to make it."
Maybe 15 minutes after I speak to Gordon, she calls me with another thought.
"If you look at defining personalities that have really laid the food landscape and made L.A. one of the most important food cities in the world, what you're looking at is Jon and Vinny, Ludo, Kogi, Sqirl, all of these places that started off in a scrappy way and in an interesting way that wasn't like the predetermined way of starting a food company or a restaurant," she says. "Up until recently, because we weren't considered a food town, you could do what you wanted and see what happened. All of a sudden, we're the most important food city, and the landscape is starting to look very different and very corporate."
HiFi, though, for now at least, remains a place for fiercely independent voices.
"This is the piece that's making HiFi very interesting right now," Gordon says. "It feels like L.A."