When it was first announced that the genius minds from Maharlika NYC and Jeepney Filipino Gastro Pub would be crossing the country to spread the good news on Filipino food here in Los Angeles, my initial reaction was to hop on that ticket ASAP! This magical collaboration was one of passion between Marian Bacol-Uba of Culinary Escorts, Nicole Ponseca of Maharlika NYC and, the forever champion, Chris Oh of Seoul Sausage and Escala K-Town.
News spread fast as the last pre-sale tickets of the event sold out within the first week of mention. LA foodies couldn’t resist the notion of modern Filipino food coming to visit because there is honestly a lack of a strong Filipino food presence here in LA. I’m just being real. Filipinos have an outnumbering population in Los Angeles and California, but it’s been an inconsistent fact that there is no great modern restaurant present as well. YES there is Filipino food here in California but its not exactly found as exciting as your typical five star restaurant. We need a classy, sit-down-and-order, food-pornography worthy resto amidst all the cafeteria style, lola’s B-grade eatery. (No offense, Lola.) Ask any white person or non-filipino person about Adobo or chocolate meat and they’ll tell you its great, but the time they did enjoy it was at their token-filipino friend’s little sister’s debut. Or they’re used to seeing it hidden in white styrofoam take-out boxes. When people rate Filipino food less than 5 stars on Yelp for reasons like “It didn’t look tasty” or “It was too greasy.” we Filipinos can only agree with a silent “YES. But it’s SO good though!!!”
See, we Filipinos KNOW our food is the best despite the carb, salt, and grease overload. But does the rest of the world know? We need to change this. We need a modernized and excellent presence of Adobo, Kare Kare, and Pancit and we need it NOW. Filipinos need not be feeling “hiya” and should be more showy and prideful of their food. Filipinos need to grow more balls and not just share their culture one baon at a time but internationally with five-star restaurants. *Bangs fist on table*
Luckily, we have a few game-changers in the filipino food world shifting minds one impressed taste bud at a time. And they’re not changing the art of the sisig or lechon completely, they’re just revamping and reconstructing the face of it from lola’s rice and “laman” food plops in styrofoam containers so many Filipino Americans are accustomed to. One star revolutionary is an inspiring female from New York City. Enter Nicole Ponseca – founder of Maharlika NYC and Jeepney NYC. She is passionate about contemporary presentations of the tapsilogs and transforming it hand-in-hand with American classics like benedicts and waffles. What happens when you get the sexy flavors of Filipino favorites incorporated with brunch dishes? Well a cute half-filipino food baby of course! Dishes like the Eggs Imelda, Flip’D Chicken and Ube Waffles, and the Sizzling Sisig have reintroduced themselves as a new definitive edge of Filipino thanks to Nicole, Maharlika NYC and Jeepney.
On June 7, I was able to catch the encore event of the Maharlika and Escala collaboration pop-up and I was so inspired to see this presentation solidify in the bustling heart of one of LA’s foodie cities. I arrived there 20 minutes before the 11am opening and I was able to observe how the team hustled and made sure every single detail was ready to impress the oncoming and hungry crowd. Nicole, such a spearhead and boss lady, reviewed the details of the Sunday Brunch menu with the team making sure each server knew the ingredients and dishes like it was their own lovechild. She quizzed them as a group and received correct responses in an almost military fashion. She made no room for second-guessing as she knew the attendees would be inquisitive. Marian, had asked me to deliver a group order of coffee as not just an energy booster for the day, but as liquid recovery from the successful Kamayan dinner of the night before. It was a big weekend for everyone involved.
Once the tables had been set, the menu reviewed, the bar reorganized, and the chefs prepped, the team all held hands for a prayer. It was lovely to be see and the growing crowd outside EsCala witness through the large panes a glimpse of the kind of dedication and passion that the team members share for the sake of honoring their food. When the doors opened, Nicole greeted the members of the growing line and introduced their entrance into the beautifully decorated interior of Escala.
The crowd filled the restaurant fast as the reserved guests were seated and the incoming guests were huddled around the bar. I was able to squeeze my arm in between my seated bar friends to order the brunch special calamansi mimosa and Maharlika’s funky rendition of the Bloody Mary. It tasted new but all too familiar at the same time as the components were Jufran Banana Ketchup and Maggi. I liked it and drank it down as a fast as I would typically at Sunday brunch nonetheless. And the calamansi mimosa was refreshing perfection during that warm 90 degree day in Los Angeles.
When we finally received our beautifully presented filipino dishes and our iPhones were finally back in our pockets, we dug in with no shame. Hardly no conversation ensued as out mouths were busily receiving and engulf-err- indulging the forkfuls of sisig, and ube waffes glazed with caramelized macapuno, calamansi hollandaise, and tapsilog. The crunch of the fried chicken was perfected by a modern chef but the flavors as familiar as my mom would make it. The Sisig was undoubtedly the best I have ever had because the crunch of the pork and the addition of the raw egg. Perfect. In 10 minutes, the food was gone. There was satisfied silence and a hidden smile being cleaned by napkins found on each of my tablemates. We were full. We were happy and we were proud. This was how Filipino food should be now: deliciously familiar but fearlessly modern.