LASA: Leveling Up Pinoy Food in L.A.
Octopus and Fresno Chiles Dish | Photo courtesy by Lasa
By Darleen Principe
Brothers Chase and Chad Valencia, like many other second-generation Filipino-Americans, grew up eating all the classics of the Philippines. Dishes like adobo, sinigang, kaldereta and lechon, plus a lot of lutong Kapampangan—cooking from the Pampanga province, where their parents are from—dominated their family’s dinner table.
Yet as Los Angeles natives, the pair also had access to a rich variety of other cuisines and cultures. It’s precisely that diverse California experience which shines through in the food at LASA, the brothers’ restaurant in LA Chinatown’s Far East Plaza. The eatery has been catching major regional attention as of late for its courageous, modern take on Filipino food.
LASA, which means “taste” or “flavor” in tagalog, is not a typical Pinoy restaurant. The lumpia sariwa on their seasonal menu, for example, comes deconstructed in a bowl instead of as a spring roll; a crepe made of brown rice flour is draped atop a bed of black kale, shaved cabbage and caramelized cauliflower, all of which is bathed in peanut-soy vinegar. The star of their tinola is not the usual chicken, but rather crispy duck. And if you head over for lunch, you’ll find their versions of chicken adobo and lechon kawali on the menu, as well as a couple of pancit bowls that scream of Filipino staples like patis and bagoong but with their egg noodles and butter, are anything but traditional.
Chad, 31, who heads LASA’s kitchen as executive chef, and Chase, 33, who runs the front of the house as general manager, wanted to see where they could take Filipino cuisine when they began developing the concept for their restaurant back in 2013. “It’s more reflective of our upbringing—being Filipino-American, working in California kitchens professionally, and growing up eating Filipino food,” said Chase. “It’s more of who we are, and so we wanted to kind of express that . . . and at the same time expand the ideas of what Filipino food can be.”
The idea took root early on. The brothers first worked together as teenagers at Owen’s Bistro, a restaurant in Chino close to where they lived at the time. “From there we felt this really cool dynamic and we said at that point, ‘Hey, let’s open a restaurant when we get older. That would be really cool,’” Chase said.
Over the next decade, Chad went on to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu and spend years cooking at beloved California spots including Corrina Weibel’s Canele and Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl in Los Angeles. Chase, who studied history at Cal State Fullerton, took the front of house approach, learning the ins and outs of food and hospitality management at Wolfgang Puck Catering. In 2012 the pair began to develop the concept for LASA while working together at Sqirl. As Chad describes it, “There came a time where after [cooking] the 50th pasta of the night, I asked myself why it wasn’t pancit. [At the time] there was nowhere [like that] to work. We had to create a place that made sense for us and was authentic to our life experiences.”
What began as a series of backyard dinners for friends and family in the summer of 2013 eventually turned into twice-a-month pop-ups at Highland Café and Elysian. After a few years of serving sold out dining rooms, they caught the eye of fellow Fil-Am chef Alvin Cailan of Eggslut. Serendipitously, Cailan was just getting ready to open Unit 120, a culinary incubator in LA’s Chinatown. Upon trying LASA’s food, Cailan offered the brothers a four-night-a-week residency at Unit 120. That’s when the operation began gaining real momentum—and the attention of famed Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who in July 2016 dubbed the pop-up “the center of Pinoy-California cooking in Los Angeles.”
Chef Chad Valencia (l) and Chase Valencia (r) | Photo by Antonio Diaz
“For [Gold] to take time and review us was such a shock,” Chase remembers. “We were excited for someone who has such respect for the city and the food world to taste what we’re trying to do. It was a very incredible experience.”
In January of this year, at the urging of Cailan, LASA took over the culinary incubator’s space at 727 N. Broadway in Chinatown. They painted the once-white walls a lush, tropical green, hung up family photos and reopened in April as the official LASA brick and mortar.
The brothers’ goal now is to turn LASA into a fully sustainable restaurant and continue working to forge a permanent place for Filipino flavors in LA’s diverse food scene. Doing that, Chad says, means getting “your average Angeleno to consider Filipino food in their conversation of ‘What are we having for dinner?’” Despite its recent surge in popularity, Chad believes “Filipino food in the scope of America, outside of food-interested and food-involved people, is just in its infancy. We have a very long way to go.”
Both brothers understand that putting Filipino food on the map in LA may require them to take risks, and challenge the norms and traditions of the cuisine. Fortunately, they’re up to the challenge.
Chef Chad Valencia cooking| Photo by Antonio Diaz