Filipino Food's Hot (and Sweaty) New Los Angeles Home
It's 90 degrees and humid on the Wednesday I visit Sari Sari Store, Marge and Walter Manzke's new Filipino-food stand in downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market. Everybody is a little sweaty, but that doesn't stop customers from devouring hot bowls of pork-laden arroz caldo (rice porridge), adobo fried rice and the bestselling lechon manok with rotisserie Jidori chicken over garlic rice. I devour a bowl of sisig fried rice that's pure comfort and brightness: crispy pig's head, resplendent chilis, onions and a fried egg. I pour some suka (Filipino vinegar) over the rice and marvel at the mix of freshness and meatiness and heat and acid.
"Filipino food is getting out there more, but the majority of people still don't know what it is," Marge says. "It's really comfort food is what it is. It's home-cooked meals. There's a lot of sweet, sour, salty, a little spiciness. There are a lot of influences. There's the Spanish side to it, the Indonesian side, the Chinese side."
L.A. is seeing a modern Filipino-food movement with great new restaurants, such as Chad and Chase Valencia's Lasa and Charles Olalia's Ricebar, as well as assorted pop-ups affiliated with Eggslut's Alvin Cailan. And the Manzkes, who operate five restaurants in the Philippines along with L.A.'s beloved Republique, bring their own original perspective.
Marge is Filipino, and Walter says that her home cooking did indeed provide a lot of the inspiration for Sari Sari Store. The funny thing is, though, the Manzkes don't serve Filipino food in the Philippines. Their Wildflour cafés there offer bistro food like steak frites, roast chicken and croque madames. Some popular dishes at Republique, like thick-cut brioche French toast and kimchi fried rice, actually originated at Wildflour.
"One of the incredible things I've learned from all this is how small the world really is," Walter says. "Everything that's cool and trendy in the world is happening in the Philippines at a very rapid rate. Everybody's into craft coffee, craft cocktails, microbrewing. [Sari Sari Store] would do great in Manila, too, Five years ago in Manila, it was difficult to find something good to eat. Now there's fantastic restaurants from every culture."
So the Manzkes might serve Filipino food in the Philippines eventually. For now, they have plenty on their plate in L.A. Right before I see them during the lunch rush at Sari Sari Store, they had been at Republique. The NoMad Truck, serving a fried chicken burger this month created by Walter, was in the parking lot. Marge has also added the truck's milk-and-honey flavor to this month's menu at Cremerie, her new ice cream spot at Republique.
Sari Sari Store and Cremerie opened simultaneously in July, which wasn't by design. But sometimes things just happen like that when you're empire-building chefs, soaking up all the heat around you.
"It feels a little like Asia in here," is the first thing a smiling Walter says to me at Sari Sari Store. "The market has an incredible energy. Even though it's hot and sweaty here, it has this energy. It has this vibe."
Like Lasa and Ricebar, Sari Sari Store respects Filipino food while riffing on it with premium ingredients and California influences—Marge's halo-halo, for example, features condensed-milk ice cream, watermelon ice and passionfruit jellies. But the core of this movement is both a celebration and an elevation the home-cooked meal.
"A lot of Filipino restaurants have food that's already prepared, that you just put in a bowl and serve with rice," Marge says. "All these new guys [in L.A.] are cooking it to order and using great ingredients. That makes a difference."