Why you should care
Because Filipino food made by an egg entrepreneur trained at the French Laundry.
It’s just after 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and Downtown Los Angeles’ bustling Grand Central Market is uncharacteristically slow. Slow, that is, except for a mélange of power-suited professionals, cops and a couple seemingly enjoying the morning after a holiday party. All are waiting for breakfast at Eggslut, the food stand that can sometimes command an hour-long line snaking through the market.
A busser tells a guest to “stir the slut up” (the stand’s signature cage-free coddled egg on top of a smooth potato puree) over funky Motown tunes. I order the Fairfax (soft scrambled eggs and chives, cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and sriracha mayo on a warm brioche bun). The chef here is more than just a former food truck operator; he’s one of LA’s budding culinary idols.
Alvin Cailan, 33, started Eggslut in 2011, and since then has taken the helm of many an enterprise: He runs a culinary incubator, Unit 120, in LA’s Chinatown and gabs with other chefs on the boozy, expletive-laden podcast The Super Amazing Restaurant Show. He calls Unit 120 an “open-mic night for chefs” — a stripped-down former pho restaurant in Chinatown that plays host to a carousel of city culinaires throughout the week, and which hosts a pop-up project called Lasa on weekends, serving “modern Filipino” cuisine.
Cailan stands out as someone who said “screw it” to the old guard.
Cailan, a born-and-bred Angeleno, has become something of an antihero in a city with an established culinary structure. Los Angeles does non–fine dining upscale casual food better than any other city in America, and possibly the world, according to Eater LA senior editor Farley Elliott — and Cailan may be at the center of it. Elliott says Cailan stands out against this landscape as someone who said “screw it” to the old guard and blazed a trail entirely his own. After staging (“interning” in culinary-career lingo) at some of the West Coast’s most acclaimed restaurants, from Matthew Lightner’s Castagna to the French Laundry, and helping open LA’s Manhattan Beach Post as a chef de partie, Cailan set out on his own in 2011. His hunch: one, that most Angelenos would rather get on the road to avoid traffic than savor their breakfast and, two, the breakfast boom overtaking other American cities had yet to strike LA.
He gathered personal savings and took on partners, doling out Eggslut’s early-menu renditions of croque-madame and bread pudding with warm vanilla anglaise before fine-tuning the menu to feature arguably the city’s best bacon-egg-cheese sandwich. Today, he enjoys success in three locations: Downtown LA’s famed Grand Central Market, The Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas, and, most recently, Venice Beach, with another in Glendale, California, to come.
Last year, following the sale of a ramen shop side project and news of Eggslut’s expansion, Cailan took up residency on his couch. Embarking on a two-week Top Chef marathon, he hashed out his next entrepreneurial endeavor from the comfort of his living room. Out of that time came the plans for Unit 120, which he self-funded.
Filipino-American brothers Chase and Chad Valencia (manager and chef of Lasa, respectively) are two of Unit 120’s young stars and Cailan mentees. Before meeting Cailan, they were bouncing around different locations and pop-ups, courting partners and investors, they told OZY. In 2017, the duo plans to find a permanent space for Lasa in Chinatown — sans outside investors, on the advice of Cailan, who often advises friends and colleagues not to take on partners unless they are sure the risk is minimal. These days, Lasa is a hot reservation.
Cailan’s also brought acclaimed pastry chef Isa Fabro, a fellow Filipino-American, to Unit 120. With Cailan’s support, she’s shifted her focus from tweezer-centric fine dining desserts to Filipino-inspired dishes like isamadas or ensaimada, Filipino brioches filled with ube and topped with sweet cheese (a play on her name, as well). Fabro is the perfect foil for our antihero; with her decades of fine dining experience, she, like Cailan, has shifted her energy to the fast-casual realm — a move sometimes frowned upon by the culinary curmudgeons. Fabro says they are not “dumbing down” their craft but rather “elevating cuisine at a price point everyone can afford.”
Raised in East LA, Cailan is the son of recent immigrants from the Philippines: His father immigrated to the U.S. in 1979 and his mother in 1981. He refers to himself as a “Chinatown–Little Tokyo rat.” When Cailan was 17, his parents got him a job as a dishwasher in a retreat house — to keep him out of trouble, he says. By the age of 18 and his senior year in high school, he was cooking as the kitchen manager. Today, Lasa’s menu includes dishes that cast nostalgic glances in the direction of Filipino dishes he grew up eating at home. Instead of traditional bistek and tinola, one finds roasted heirloom carrot with preserved calamansi yogurt, chicharron crumble and crispy garlic.
One of the more lucid distillations of Cailan’s dream crops up when he tries to articulate his ambitions for Filipino food in general. “So you’re watching Friends, and Monica’s the chef,” he begins. “They say, ‘I don’t feel like cooking today; I wanna call blah blah blah for takeout.’” Chinese food soon shows up. He fast-forwards to 2017 and imagines a new sitcom: The characters are feeling lazy, they order takeout. This time, the conversation isn’t “Thai or Indian?” The food on the table are egg rolls and Filipino barbecue.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Cailan’s name and incorrectly characterized Lasa as Cailan’s own project.