Chef Alvin Cailan: From Egg Sandwiches to Eggplant Adobo
Credit: Matthew Zuras via Munchies Vice.
By Krista Garcia
Eggslut, the cheekily named food stall that appeared at Los Angeles’ revamped Grand Central Market in 2011, transformed the humble breakfast sandwich into a breakout star. Its signature offering, a brioche bun filled with a runny yolk from a cage-free egg, hardwood smoked bacon, cheddar and chipotle ketchup, immediately drew crowds. Six years later, guests are still lining up for a taste.
These all-American sandwiches, now available in Las Vegas plus three California locations, might be more famous than the man who helped created them. The edible hit is the product of Alvin Cailan, a classically-trained Filipino-American chef who was almost content for eggs to be his legacy. But on the Eggslut road to fame he embraced his roots and started cooking–as he calls it–“Filipino food by way of East Los Angeles.”
Cailan’s path post-culinary school was certainly unexpected. He began by staging at respected restaurants such as Noma and The French Laundry before launching into egg sandwiches and now, Filipino dishes like chicken inasal. “It was never my intention to cook Filipino food,” said Cailan, “But it was almost my calling to do it in some weird majestic way.” Whenever he made Pinoy food at dinner parties for chefs, sommeliers, restaurant managers, and other industry friends, it always was well-received, something that got him thinking about starting a popup concept–later. What really sped up his timeline, however, was when Cailan was invited to give a speech for NextDayBetter, a platform for diaspora communities. They were eager for a “TED Talk about how to empower Filipino-Americans”. At first, Cailan resisted; he was too busy building Eggslut and growing its locations. But eventually he saw the impact he could have on the food community with this speech. As he puts it, “People need to know that Eggslut is owned by a minority.” Six months later, Cailan gave his 45 minute speech and was received with a standing ovation from a teary-eyed audience.
After the talk, Cailan was introduced to brothers, chef Chad Valencia and Chase Valencia, who would go on to open LASA, a California-inflected Filipino restaurant, in a space used for Cailan’s culinary incubator. There was synergy in the passion they all had for the food they grew up with.
Chef Alvin Cailan | Photo by @rawkbeez
Cailan began to dabble in Filipino food more seriously, starting with BBQ. In January of 2016 he started an LA takeout window, which he named “Amboy” (Tagalog slang for an American-born Filipino). The flavors were a combination of Southern California’s grill culture as well as his father’s classic style of cooking. The chef has also been teasing an Amboy venture in NYC, but instead of a takeout window the offerings would be available only via UberEATS. Cailan’s path beyond Eggslut doesn’t end at Amboy, however. He is on a six-month plan to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in NYC named “Paper Planes”. While the term is indeed slang for rolling joints, Cailan likens the restaurant’s chosen name to his career so far. “You fold a piece of paper and hope it flies”. He describes the food as a “stoner version of a deli”, straddling the line between hedonistic and healthful with items such as chips paired with mung bean ricotta or luscious smoked meats atop salads and grains. If things go as planned, the space may also house Amboy in the back to celebrate Filipino food.
Food from Amboy | Photo courtesy of Amboy
These salads and dips might be more familiar to the average American diner than lumpia or pancit, but many Filipino staple ingredients like soy sauce, garlic and vinegar aren’t out of anyone’s comfort zones. When asked what he would serve to someone who’s never tasted Filipino food before, Cailan described a pork flight to demonstrate the cuisine’s salty, sweet, and sour flavors: a piece of pork belly, simply salted and fried; another piece dipped in soy sauce and garlic; one dipped in fish sauce; one in bagoong (a fermented shrimp paste); and finally one with a sauce of all of those ingredients combined. In fact, Cailan has already been experimenting with a pork belly hybrid with the deep-fried crispness of lechon, glazed with a soy-garlic sauce used as the star of an Amboy rice bowl with mung beans, beet cured egg, and calamansi-dressed greens.
Chef Alvin Cailan plating | Photo courtesy Alvin Cailan
Based on the reception from New Yorkers of Cailan during his stint at Chef’s Club by Food & Wine, there is definitely room in the city for more of his take on Filipino cuisine. While it wasn’t a straight path from learning to grill in LA from his father to culinary school and egg sandwich fame, then becoming an ambassador for Filipino food in NYC, when you step back it’s clear Cailan’s paper plane is flying high.