by Dan Johnson
Asian Fast Food & Grocery is not outwardly impressive. It employs a bare minimum of signage. Had a reader not recommended it, I would have never known the hospital adjacent point-point joint existed. The condolences oriented florist next door is easier to find.
Despite having a less-than-obvious profile, it is a substantial and busy node of pan-Pacific cuisine served up in keeping with the finest traditions of the Filipino people who have been an essential if understated aspect of the Angeleno experience.
First, I don’t mean to trigger the herd of ostriches currently known as “the American electorate,” but our national prestige has almost nothing to do with our culture, morals or freedom. It has everything to do with advantageous geographical positioning astride two major oceans and the particular fortune of having established ourselves on aforementioned plot of land with equal parts cunning and propensity for violence against categorical others.
Anyone with a difference of opinion is welcome to howl their thoughts into the bajillion grains of sand surrounding their earth-implanted head or wake the fuck up.
The history of California (and really the United States in general) is inexorably linked with the Philippines. Here in Los Angeles, we are surrounded by quiet reminders of the link between the shared histories of America and the Philippines.
Much of early European activity in Alta California has a strong relationship with Spanish maritime traditions in the Age of Discovery. They were looking for wealth (and souls) and they had an abundance of nautical knowledge with which to project their national ambitions westward from the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
Thanks to oceanic currents, the annual Manila Galleon and its rich haul of gold wound up hitting the West Coast of North America somewhere north of Point Conception, which encouraged Spanish development along the littoral. This in turn encouraged English privateering a la Sir Francis Drake. It begins a precedent of double-edged wealth extraction that has come to define the relationship between the two land masses.
The American people, who are historically enamored with their own supposed value in God’s eyes and thus predisposed to assuming that the world is there plaything to extract value from at whatever cost, eventually established themselves in California and industrialized. Eyes were soon set on the Spanish holding in the Philippine Sea.
In the late days of the 19th century, an ambitious Assistant Secretary of the Navy named Roosevelt instructed the sea service to draw up plans to capture Manila Bay should things come to blows with the Spanish as they did in Cuba in 1898. On May 1 of that year, Dewey’s ships creamed the living fuck out of the Spanish defenders there and America’s military officially purchased its first overseas colony (shhh! We say client state these days!).
Almost two years to the day after the capture of Manila, then President Roosevelt traveled to Los Angeles where he mounted a stage at the corner of 6th St and Olive St and addressed 50,000 people on two subjects: western conservation and the importance of developing a Pacific fleet with which to establish ourselves.
Blah blah blah…so what? Well, because we love extracting natural resources and have the financial wherewithal to build business mechanisms with which to convert those resources into finished goods, the Americans on the West Coast were well positioned to invest heavily in the Philippines. Once invested, we were loath to let what we viewed as a financial fiefdom go to seed.
Our city bears the stretch marks where that monetary commitment sagged into a military burden. Pershing Square bears the name of the general who made his fame fighting the Moro Insurrection. One of the few statues in our esteemed park honors the Californians who fought in the Philippines.
More importantly, Los Angeles the metropolis owes its identity as a budding mega-city to a military industrial complex that was developed here to fight off the Japanese Empire that deigned to separate the resource-rich Philippines from the American interests that benefited from it.
Libraries have been filled with accounts of those campaigns and figures like Douglas MacArthur whose experiences in Southeast Asia established strategic precedents that caused America to commit to war in Vietnam decades later. Thanks to that conflict, countless American service members reacquainted themselves with the Philippines through lurid stories of the shit that went down at bars near Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base.
That’s the tragedy of America’s understanding of the Philippines. It’s all too frequently seen in relation to the maintenance of American influence across the ocean. When, in fact, the American narrative is undergirded with the story of Filipino people who today represent over 1% of the national population. They are a mainstay of American life and an important touchstone of cultural influence in a California that increasingly sees itself as a Pacific entity more than a continental force.
Often burdened with a stereotype of anonymity and over-accommodation, Filipino Americans remain somewhat invisible to a broadband of insensitive Americans who register Asian identity on a binary. Though our city is stocked with important Filipino-owned institutions that stretch far beyond Temple St, it is not always readily apparent how bedrock the Filipino people are to Los Angeles life and culture.
They are mainstays. Undeniable participants and partners in the experiment we call civics. Were I a reddit-binging bigot, I might say they “infiltrated American society.” The fact is that Filipino-Americans have earned their strong presence in our nation’s life. They are historically endowed with a marvelous versatility.
The Philippines themselves are located an important crossroads between the Western Hemisphere, Mainland East Asia and Oceania. These islands have been a venue for cultural cross pollination. The Tagalog language is stocked with “loan-words” that attest to linguistic borrowing and adaptability, but also a stalwart commitment to the foundations of Filipino culture. So too is cuisine an indication of an interplay between essence and influence.
At the corner of 6th Stand Lucas Ave, Asian Fast Food & Grocery is a textbook example. The squat turo-turo joint gives no outward indication that is of Filipino derivation. This is perhaps a survival mechanism to help it blend in with the latino oriented tax business and liquor store across 6th St and the Pacific Dining Car across Lucas Ave.
Here’s how you know. The menu offers up both silog items and merienda. That’s what we call a mélange folks, one that offers culinary homage to a tradition slung between Filipino tastes, Iberian influence and a knack for Pan-Asian adaptation. This goes-aways in explaining why my single item combo of garlic rice and chop suey did not quite taste like chop suey, but was delicious nonetheless.
That’s $5.75 of history for you. One that was exceptionally filling. One that tasted like a true blue collar meal and not some steak and eggs, Bruce Springsteen-adoring, United Auto Workers ’83 Detroit bull shit, but some actual carb-stocked power bomb.
I award Asian Fast Food & Grocery a coveted “1” on the binary and to the community of Filipino-Americans that have made Los Angeles, California, the West and America undeniably better for their contributions, I doff my cap.