At LALO, a Philly Filipino connection boils down to a group of friends
"It's really awesome to be able to share Filipino food to people that had no idea what it was."
There's an old-time "let's-put-on-a-show" aspect to LALO, the Filipino lunch stand at the new Bourse Food Hall across from Independence Mall, as well as a splash of serendipity:
Three millennials of Filipino heritage, all friends with ties to the hospitality industry, rued the dearth of Pinoy food options four years ago. They began a series of pop-up restaurants under the name Pelago. Emboldened by the critical reception, they began looking for a permanent location — and found a chef to add professionalism. Then the Bourse began soliciting vendors for its new project.
That was enough to convince Jillian Encarnacion, who grew up in Bucks County, to pull the trigger. For 35 years, her grandfather Bas sold kebabs and other Filipino-inspired foods from a cart parked on Sixth Street, directly across the mall. Her family, including her father, Willie, also owned several now-closed restaurants, including Manila Bay.
Her spouse, Resa Mueller (raised all over; mother was born in the Philippines), photographer-farmer Neal Santos (who grew up in Jersey City), and chef Michael Cher (who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County) signed on, too.
At LOLA — a portmanteau of the Tagalog words lolo (grandfather) and lola (grandmother) — you can get the skewers known as inihaw served with garlic rice, the veggie-filled crepes known as lumpiang sariwa, and house-made sweet garlic pork Longanisa sausages served on a roll, with Gina brand mango and calamansi juices.
How did this get started?
Resa: I was working on Feastival [the annual food festival benefiting FringeArts]. Jill was managing Twenty Manning Grill, and Neal was taking pictures. We were walking around Feastival. We noticed there was no representation for Filipino food in the city — which is pretty notable, because there are a pretty significant population of Filipinos, but everybody I guess was just traveling to South Jersey or just eating at home. We decided to get together and start doing pop-ups focused around Filipino food in the context of Philadelphia in whatever season we were doing. Neal has his farm [with husband Andrew Olson]. We wanted to utilize a lot of the produce. That sense of locality was also important to us, in addition to presenting food from our heritage and food from our childhood. We reached out to a friend of ours, Lou Boquila [a chef who has since launched the Filipino restaurants Perla and Sarvida].
Why the Bourse?
Neal: We were looking for any type of relationship that would lead us to something that would build us a brick-and-mortar. Then I heard the Bourse was available, and I just sent an email to [the developer]. We all got our ducks in a row, we found an awesome investor, and ultimately signed a lease.
Resa: Kind of built into the story of this specific location are Jill's family recipes and the fact that her grandfather sold food right across the street. Originally, we weren't really looking for a fast-casual. We were looking more for a full-service restaurant thing. This kind of fell into our laps a little bit, and we stepped back and looked at it. We were like, you know what? Let's get in the kitchen, where we can do pop-ups. It's a home for pop-ups, it's a home for catering, because we've been getting requests for catering as well, because there aren't a lot of options for Filipino food in the city.
Michael, how did you get involved?
Michael: I come from Ukrainian Jewish descent, and I did a lot of different things. I went to school for law and predental until I realized that I actually wanted to cook. When I was 25, I went to culinary school here at the Art Institute. Just started dabbling, working for a bunch of different restaurants in the city. Eventually, I ended up being the sous-chef at Heritage in Northern Liberties, and that's when we all got to know each other. The Pelago team gave me the opportunity to do my first pop-up at Farm 51, Neal's farm. That was our first little go at it. It was my first experience cooking Filipino food.
We had a common passion, which was food. As a chef, it doesn't really matter which direction of food it is. I just like to immerse myself in whatever I'm doing. I'm kind of a traditionalist where, if I take on the challenge of learning a new cuisine, I want to do it respectfully and thoroughly without adding too much outside influence. Before I can start tweaking things, I want to make sure I can do it as well as your grandmother, your father cooked. It wasn't hard for me to become adjusted to this kind of food. It doesn't hurt that I really liked it.
How did you learn that?
Michael: When we talked about it, they asked, 'Would you be interested in us holding your hand?' I'd mix my expertise with their knowledge and upbringing of the food. I was like, 'Yeah, absolutely.' I started reading books. We talked a lot about the dishes that they liked and grew up with. Later on, earlier this year we went to the Philippines together and I learned a lot more hands-on there, just tasting everything.
Tell me about the pop-ups.
Jillian: It's really awesome to be able to share Filipino food to people that had no idea what it was. That's kind of our main focus, is sharing what our heritage is, explaining to people what it is that Filipino is — which is just us in a nutshell. It's what family means to us. What it means to just have people to our homes, coming together at the dinner table, the food, to share stories. Things like that.
Define Filipino food.
Resa: Filipino food is very easy to define, but very difficult to pinpoint. The food geographically is kind of located in that perfect area where, during the spice trade, precolonial times, it was a perfect landing spot for Chinese traders, Arab traders, and Malayan traders. There was a lot of cultural interaction and exchange happening. Our food exhibits a lot of influence from all of those cultures. Then you have 500 years of Spanish colonialism and then you have 50-ish years of American colonialism. If you look at the LALO menu, you can see influences from all over the world. On top of that, you have Filipinos living in the diaspora. Filipino American food feels like its own kind of thing. Especially on the East Coast, it's really hard for us to get specifically produce, but also even animal products that are integral to the cuisine.
Jillian, tell me more about your grandfather’s cart.
Jillian: Mike used to go buy food from him.
Michael: I'd do it all the way from the '80s to the '90s — a long, long time.
Jillian: We told Mike, "Don't screw it up because we love that food."