Imagining a New Filipino American Neighborhood Into Being, Starting With Food

On a recent Saturday, mellow ’90s R&B pumped from a tiny strip of a parking lot off Seventh Street in downtown Los Angeles. Cooks in sleeveless T-shirts danced as they worked, flipping mushroom skewers and longganisa patties on long charcoal grills.

As I made my way through the crowd at Filled Market — maneuvering around aunties in oversize sun hats, couples with babies and a pair of dogs in fat gold chains — a scoop of mango and sticky rice ice cream started to drip down my arm.

There are plenty of excellent outdoor markets in Southern California, but the crowd was gathered at this one for the piles of garlic noodles with grilled shrimp from Taste of the Pacific and the chewy, mango and peach bibingka from San & Wolves Bakeshop. Marketgoers debated which shiny houseplants to buy from FlyPlant, and sniffed the candles on display from Rikki’s Wickies, with scents like calamansi, leche flan and strawberry milk.

The Manila District, as the founders of Filled Market have nicknamed this slice of the city, is both a very real and somewhat dreamed-up place. While the pop-up appears once every few months, each time with a different mix of small, mostly Filipino-owned businesses, it also disappears within hours. And, despite the name, which shows up on Google Maps, it isn’t an officially designated Filipino enclave.

There is one in Los Angeles — Historic Filipinotown was established in 2002 — but Filipino neighborhoods tend to be rare in the United States, said Joseph Bernardo, an adjunct professor in the Asian and Asian Pacific American Studies Department at Loyola Marymount University.

Dr. Bernardo, who is also a historian for the Historic Filipinotown Coalition, said that Filipinos often immigrated to the United States with fluency in English, making it easier to assimilate and less essential to live near one another and build their own business community.

More than 500,000 Filipino Americans live in and around Los Angeles. And while Historic Filipinotown is home to some of them, along with legacy Filipino organizations and businesses, it’s not a powerful business hub. An archway was built last year to help with visibility, but Angelenos don’t tend to visit to spend on food and shopping in the same way they do in Chinatown, Koreatown or Little Tokyo.

Rayson Esquejo, who works in digital marketing, and Lauren Delgado, a lobbyist who specializes in land use, are the business partners behind Filled Market. They imagine the Manila District as an intergenerational space where new Filipino businesses can experiment, connect with their audience and grow. Though they’d like to have the market in Historic Filipinotown, gentrification is transforming that neighborhood, which is close to Echo Park and Silver Lake. For now, a parking lot in downtown Los Angeles is just more affordable.

The Filled Market staff looks for vendors who are running small businesses all over the city, and into Orange County and Long Beach. Many of their most popular vendors, regardless of where they’re based, don’t have brick-and-mortar spaces. Kym Estrada, the owner and head baker of San & Wolves, rents a shared kitchen in Los Alamitos, right off the 405 freeway, where she fulfills special orders and caters pop-ups.

She learned to bake while living in New York City, making vegan renditions of pan de coco and pan de sal at home, after work at her job managing social media for celebrities. Later, she cooked in vegan bakeries, and deepened her knowledge of Filipino baking by watching women cook on YouTube.

Ms. Estrada developed her own vegan versions of baking ingredients from scratch, including butter, sweetened condensed milk and ube halaya — a sweet, jammy mash of the starchy purple yam. The pastries she makes are cozy and playful, exploring a full and delicious scope of Filipino American baking. She might fill golden, flaky pastries with red bean paste to make hopia, or glaze thrillingly huge pandan-cinnamon buns and sprinkle them with toasted coconut.

At her first pop-up, in 2017, Ms. Estrada sold pudgy buko Pop-Tarts with colorful squiggles of purple icing, ube crumb cups made with shortbread, and pan de coco, then tucked the cash from her sales in an old Dr. Martens shoe box. Not long before the pandemic, she moved back to the Los Angeles area with her boyfriend, determined to run her own vegan bakery full-time.

In the past decade, both Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain called Filipino food the next big thing for the United States. Locally, the restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote that 2017 was a pivotal moment for Filipino dining in Los Angeles. While the publicity suggested visibility and enthusiasm for Filipino cuisine, it also obscured the reality of how difficult and fragmented the process can be for a food business to get off the ground — and to stay in business.

Data released last week from a new Pew Research Center analysis showed that while 12 percent of all restaurants in the United States serve Asian food, less than 1 percent of those are Filipino.

Regi Deopante is a food science student at California State University, Long Beach, who also works as a cook at the Filipino-run restaurant Lasita in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. He started his pop-up business Regi’s Turo Turo at the end of last year, setting up outside coffee shops to grill skewers and sell bundles of vegan pastil, made from mushrooms, wrapped in banana leaves.

He was delighted to get a call from Filled Market to join an event, in part because he wants his food to reach his ideal audience of other Filipino Americans, “from Millennials to Gen Z, as well as their parents — the titos and the titas, the real cooks in our families.”

Filled Market is a tiny and only occasional event in Los Angeles, but it feels dynamic and crucial. At the most recent appearance, a crowd formed immediately for Ms. Estrada’s baked goods. She sifted through speed racks behind the counter, packing boxes to order, adjusting the menu (and breaking hearts) as she sold out of pastries.

I managed to get a slice of pandan cake — thick layers of airy chocolate buttercream between tender, lightly scented layers of pale green. After polishing it off, I was delighted to learn that Mr. Esquejo and Ms. Delgado have their own ambitions to make the market a permanent space and imagine the Manila District in a more lasting way.

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