There’s a certain logic when it comes to countries and their citizens: Korea/Koreans, Japan/ Japanese, Thailand/Thais. The Philippines, however, is a shake-up call: Philippines . . . Filipinos? Baffled and bemused over the number of “Ls” and “Ps” in each, I got distracted.
AMBOY: Recipes from the Filipino-American Dream, however, neither perplexes nor confounds. Authors Alvin Cailan and Alexandra Cuerdo usher you into their world of the Republic of the Philippines and highly urbanized Filipinx-Americans – the majority of whom call the Los Angeles area home.
Cailan describes his book as “my story and the recipes that were inspired by my life’s journey.” With the help of Cuerdo (who made him the “star of her first movie” – in her documentary film MLAM Main Dish, which chronicles the rise of Filipinx food in the U.S.), they have created a frank and highly absorbing, collaborative effort. Of the book, Cailan states, “As much as it’s my story; it’s hers as well.” The book honors his Filipino roots and, for those unfamiliar with Pinoy food, culture and experiences, he chronicles his life in the Filipinx diaspora of America.
A cross-pollination of the two talents, it incorporates a Q & A method that induces memories, generates stories, and ties them to recipes that bind it all into an inventive, captivating narrative. The recipes, with their larger-than-life techni-scrumptious photos, are equally imbued with the conversational style in a genuine down-home manner, putting the reader at instant ease, prompting thoughts: “Who ARE these people?” and “I want to know MORE about them.”
Hitting my desk with a resounding “THUD”, Amboy, like its author is a hefty, hefty – HEFTY presence. The book weighs in at six pounds; and the book is worth every pound and ounce in terms of what it and its writers offer. The unfamiliar, but inviting newly created recipes, are nestled between engrossing stories of Cailan’s meandering life-progress, as he plods his way toward becoming one of the most highly regarded, prominent chefs in America’s Filipinx food movement.
Unless you are lucky enough to reside along the I-5 on the West Coast, you may not be familiar with Filipinx or their cuisine. According to Census 2020, the population of the U.S. is 331 million people. Of the Asian ethnic groups, the three largest are Chinese (5.2 million), Asian Indian (4.5 million) and – you may be surprised – Filipinx (4.1 million). The first recorded presence of Filipinx in what is now the U.S. was in 1587. So WHY, after over 400 years stateside, does their imprint on the country seem almost imperceptible? Why is it hard to find “Little Manilas” in the U.S. when “Chinatowns” and “India Towns/Little Indias” flourish?
Theories abound; three highly plausible. #One. The Philippines has a lengthy record of multiple ethnicities and cultures. Negritos were among the archipelago’s earliest inhabitants. They were followed by a succession of Austronesian groups, as well as an influx of global sojourner-settlers from its period as a western hub of trans-Pacific trade. It has been often noted that Filipinx are sometimes difficult to identify – they “don’t have a distinct look” and can pass for multiple ethnic groups: Asians, Mexicans, Spaniards, etc.
#Two. The colonization of the Philippines by Spain for 333 years (often referred to by Filipinx as “300 years in a convent”) resulted in a residue of cultural assimilations that continue to exist even today: religious practices (Catholicism); cuisine (paella, lechon, churros and cooking methods – whole roast pigs, dairy-based sweets); feast days and holidays (Christmas, Good Friday); architecture(hybrid buildings of local-European design); loanwords (from objects formerly unknown, e.g., mesa – table; silya – chair); adoption of names (the Philippines was named after King Philip II of Spain; surnames based on Catholic conversions: de la Cruz – “of the Cross”; del Rosario – “of the Rosary”); crafts(fine handwoven embroidery of burda). Often referred to as the “latinos of Asia” the label underscores the deep ties that have made the people seem more Spanish than Asian.
#Three. Colonization by the Americans, who came after Spain and remained in control for 48 years, enforced an educational system with English as the national language of instruction along with Filipino, which resulted in socialization to American norms, English language facility and familiarity with cultural standards, making immigration to the U.S. less of a challenge than that of other immigrant groups.
When Filipinx entered the U.S., they were more independent and able to avoid ethnic enclaves that other minority immigrants found necessary to support their initiation to a foreign, new country. These factors empowered them with the ability to avoid congregating into “Little Manilas” making their presence in their adopted country less “visible”, their cuisine an undisclosed mystery.
To those who have never tasted Filipinx food, encountered or stopped at a Filipinx restaurant, it may come as a surprise that since 1936 the food of the Philippines have been featured in over two dozen cookbooks in the U.S. Shock-and-awe fade however, given the fact that roughly 17.8 million are published annually. Although the Filipinx market share is far from saturated with its how-to-cook books, there are probably more available than most of us imagined. Now, Amboy has joined its ranks.
“Amboy” is a label created by Cailan’s grandma, which she used to refer to all American born Filipinos. The author considers it an all-encompassing term that describes his cuisine, lifestyle, methods of cooking, and manner of speaking. States Cailan, his cookbook is the story of “not being Filipino enough to be Filipino, and not being American enough to be American.” No doubt it’s a tale to which most immigrant families of color can relate.
In 2011, nearing age 30, and after years of struggling in search of “finding his way,” Cailan created the EggSlut mobile pop-up food truck as a means of infiltrating the entry-level restaurant business. The risqué name, chosen to attract attention, resulted in a boon of an advertising uproar, taking the East L.A. area by storm; EggSlut rose meteorically to become a food industry living legend. According to Cailan, “This was the only city where we could do a concept with this name”. Inspired by a love for the key ingredient – eggs – EggSlut as a name was highly controversial, but a perfect attention magnet, drawing immediate curiosity and interest.
“At the time,” remarked Cailan, “(Eggslut) was like a foodie term. Chefs were putting eggs on everything — pasta, rice, burgers, etc. And we would say, ‘Oh that chef, blah, blah, blah. He’s an eggslut.” Because the food truck featured a breakfast-only sandwich menu highlighting eggs in all of its carry-out-to-go choices, it was decided that EggSlut was the perfect moniker for the meals-on-wheels newcomer. It was not without controversy among food critics, however.
Edgy food trucks and restaurants with suggestive names and slogans (Greasy Weiner, Tokyo Doggy Style, KickAss Cupcakes) encouraged by a legacy of crass and vulgar marketing in films, TV, advertising, etc. have continued to gain an increasing hold on the changing tastes and aesthetics of the country. A construction company that built a high-rise hotel and advertised it, draped in banners labeled Mammoth Erection, was quickly inundated with new clients. This has not gone unnoticed by other wannabe imitators attempting to profit through similar means.
EggSlut was created to appeal to both novice and extreme foodies using classic comfort fare with a twist. With his background of working in toney restaurants, Cailan created a chef driven, gourmet food concept. Not just a breakfast staple, the egg-ladened menu, promoted with photogenic, oozing-eggy sandwich portraits, was served all day. The EggSlut mission focused on “quality, taste, consistent presentation, and great customer service.”
It became a cult favorite, specializing in affordable but sophisticated egg sandwiches (all made with cage-free eggs and served on a warm brioche bun made locally).
Menu specimens: the Fairfax (soft scrambled eggs and chives, cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and sriracha mayo; the Gaucho (seared wagyutri-tip steak, over medium egg, chimichurri, red onions and dressed arugula; and a Cheeseburger (ground angus beef, over medium egg, caramelized onions, bread and butter pickles, cheddar cheese, and dijonnaise).
A house signature, the Slut (an egg atop a smooth potato purée, poached in a glass jar, topped with gray salt and chives, served with slices of baguette) quickly rose to the head of its money-maker chart.
While its name was a boost in bringing in business, Cailan recalls one day, after EggSlut’s recent opening, Ruth Reichel (American chef, food writer, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine) happened by one morning. “She walks up and I looked at her through the window. I was the cashier at the moment and my knees buckle… I told her I was a big fan of hers for so long and I even quoted some of the stuff she said and then I told her, ‘Hang tight. We do a coddled egg and I want you to try it – our signature dish, it’s called the Slut.’ And so she had it and then later on the afternoon, she tweets about it and then the next thing you know, the next day, every single local foodie was in line and then that was it. That’s the history of the truck.”
As a result, two-hour lines grew long, and appetites for EggSlut, longer. By 2013, Cailan had turned in his wheels and replaced them with a brick-and-mortar immoveable object that turned into an unstoppable fast-food force garnering critical praise. Named one of the 50 Best Restaurants in America by Bon Appétit and listed in Food Network’s 50 Best American Breakfasts Between Bread,Cailan was proclaimed winner of the 2014 Rising Star Chef award; he has been featured in publications such as Saveur, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Bloomberg, the New York Times, Sunset, and Vice; he hosts the popular YouTube channel program, The Burger Show.
Today there are five Eggsluts in California and Nevada. International Eggsluts now dot the globe in Korea, Japan, London and Kuwait, with another in Singapore opening soon. He has created other LA restaurants and businesses: Ramen Champ (serving Tokyo-style Ramen), Amboy (featuring a small selection of grilled meats, vegetables & bean dishes), and Amboy Delicious Meats and Quality Burgers (a shop providing prime, uncooked offerings available for pick-up). A restaurant incubator, Unit 120, provides kitchen space and dining rooms to restaurant-hopefuls, offering a platform for rising chefs to test their concepts, learn management skills while simultaneously extending locals the opportunity to dine on innovative, first-rate meals.
The energetic bicoastal entrepreneur, with a home also in NYC’s Tribeca area, presents a rotating menu of grab-and-go dishes at his Chefs Cub Counter in the Nolita area of the city. After only a two-year run in lower Manhattan, The Usual(Cailan’s first full-service restaurant providing meals beyond the breakfast sandwich menu) was closed amid allegations of sexual harassment against its sommelier (Cailan’s brother). Currently, Chef Cailan is working on new restaurant proposals: Paper Planes (proposing an all-day menu of healthy breakfast options) and an experimental doughnut shop, yet TBD.
For now, the current focus is on his book, Amboy, drawing readers in through the potent power of his personality, vividly reflected in the writing.
Its Preface begins: “EGGSLUT CHEF WRITES FIRST COOKBOOK! If you’re looking for one hundred food-porny egg sandwich recipes, then you’re going to be extremely disappointed in this book.” It continues, “This is a story about a brown kid, from a brown family, whose roots are in Southeast Asia.” Toward the end, in Chapter 12, he describes Angela: “I pursued her for a year. I would eat at the counter every day just to flirt with her…I fell in love hard…my life has changed for the best … (she’s) the love of my life.”
Unabashed, stripped down, Cailan reveals a relatable, living breathing mortal trudging through life in both his glory and ignominious moments of shame and regret.
The 352-page cooking novella is divided into 13 chapters, each featuring a person or event of major impact on his life history. The first chapter, “Mom and Dad”, introduces you to his parents, interspersed and wrapped around recipes such as Beef Nilaga, Dad’s Tortang Giniling, and Arroz Caldo with Chicken Chicharron. The chapter “Lola” credits his “greatest of great-grandmas – I’m a fatty because of you” with examples of dishes that made him the man he is today: Lola’s Lumpoia Shanghai with Pork and Shrimp and Lola’s Pancit Bihon (Noodles with Vegetables). The chapter, “The Rise of Eggslut” is introduced with a passage written by Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl: “…we happened upon a food truck. I am incapable of passing one without stopping for a bite, but this one called out to me with a particularly loud voice.”
Reichl exclaims after finishing the house signature dish, the Slut: “Heaven in a spoon. And so rich it made…(me) deliriously happy for the rest of the day.” The chapter’s recipes include Bacon-Leek Tart (using $30-a-pound bacon), The Madame (a nod to the French Croque Madame) and The Bone Mi (Cailan’s accolade to the Banh Mi sandwich).
The diversity in origins and assortment of dishes in the over 100 recipes in Amboy proffers the world on a plate: Suman (Glutinous Rice Tamales), Bulalo Ramen, Sauce Espagnole, Kutsinta (Filipino Mochi), Danilo’s Pancit Canton (Chinese-Style Noodles), Velouté (French Gravy), Bibingka (Coconut-Rice Cake) with Philly Cream Cheese.
With his impressive resumé, it’s not surprising that a cookbook was in Cailan’s future. Like other chefs who have authored bookseller editions, those in the world of cookery with similar backgrounds tend to travel down comparable roads. Amboy distinguishes itself from the crowded kitchen bookshelves with its Filipinx food focus, simple, informal and intimate writing style replete with straightforward personal life vignettes of serial soap-arific episodes, and a polyglot of not-the-usual-suspect recipes. Amboy channels the multicultural backdrop of the Philippines with the realities and genuine spirit of Filipinx living in America.
If you are not familiar with Filipinx cuisine, Amboy provides a tasty introduction. If you are already accustomed to eating and/or preparing Filipinx meals, Cailan presents dishes with fusion influences, combining the flavors of diverse countries in surprising umami amalgamates to refresh and stimulate your appetite. In a word, Amboy is: Engrossing. In two words: Buy It.