Inside a tiny bakery in a strip mall in Eagle Rock, bags of purple ube pan de sal share shelf space with biko pandan, a greenish coconut-infused rice dessert. There’s bibingka, a buttery cake typically eaten at Christmastime in the Philippines, plus trays of ensaymada cheese rolls, and bicho bicho sugar donuts.
I’m at Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop, waiting in the check-out line, and as usual, I’m having a hard time deciding what to bring home. The man in front of me smiles when I ask what his favorite items are. “It’s all regional delicacies in here,” he explains. “We grew up with this stuff; so we come here to reminisce.”
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By “we,” he’s referring to the thousands of Filipino-Americans who call this stretch of Los Angeles home. I don’t include myself in that group. But, as a travel writer who’s had his wings clipped by the pandemic, this mall, Eagle Rock Plaza, is the closest I’ve come to a proper escape—even though it’s just a few minutes from my house. Whenever I get down about not being able to see new parts of the world, this is where I go.
At one end of the mall is a giant Target, at the other, Macy’s. But it’s the bright, tiled corridor in the middle where locals go to feel like they’re back in Manila. Here, they can order fried chicken and spaghetti at Jollibee’s, or find whole-grilled bangus, the national fish of the Philippines, at Crispy Town. And then there’s Valerio’s, with its aromatic breads, colorful desserts, and other treats.
But when it comes to comfort food, all of these businesses are really just side attractions to the main event: Seafood City. The California-based Filipino grocery megachain operates locations as far-flung as Ontario and Hawaii. This one opened in 2006 and quickly established itself as a regional staple for traditional Filipino pantry items like Chippy’s potato chips, tamarind candy, red hot dogs, and whole coconuts. And then, of course, there’s the seafood.
As far as I can tell, no other fish store in L.A. offers a selection as complete—or as colorful—as this. Browsing the aisles here feels like you’re at a wet market, with overflowing bins of Pacific Kumamoto oysters, jumbo squid, blue crab, sea snails, and three kinds of clams (Manila, cherrystone, and Venus). I may not know exactly how best to work with these ingredients, but that’s never stopped me from shopping with the enthusiasm of a toddler in a dinosaur museum.
And that’s not even counting the actual fish. Nearly 50 kinds of whole fish—including Norwegian mackerel, yellowtail snapper, trout, and Dover sole—are on view, laid out under piles of crushed ice that lend the fish a shiny, crystallized appearance. Even without the Philippines connection, the sheer bounty would make any fish lover blush with pride.
Branzino, $9.99 a pound, is the best seller, I’m told, though all the fish seems to get fair consideration from shoppers, who move quietly between the cases, sizing up the scaly stock. One white-haired man helps himself to a bin full of tilapia, shoveling the round fish into his basket like peanuts from a jar.
Eagle Rock, located in the northeast corner of L.A., was established in 1911, just as Hollywood was solidifying its reputation as the film capital of the world. It’s home to Occidental College, which President Obama briefly attended in the late 1970s. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck rented a house here to write the screenplay for Good Will Hunting that would go on to win an Oscar in 1998. John Steinbeck had a stint here.
Less documented is Eagle Rock’s community of Filipinos, the largest in L.A.
“When my husband and I were planning to have another baby,” recalls Josette Corro, a longtime Eagle Rock resident, “several Filipino friends told me, ‘Eagle Rock is the place to go.’” Corro moved here in 1996, and quickly discovered what she calls a “hidden community.” The schools had a good reputation and the rent was cheap (a two-bedroom at the time went for around $500), but it was the network of first- and second-generation Filipinos that made the neighborhood shine in her eyes.
Josette was the first of her immediate family to move here, but she wasted no time in recruiting her relatives in other parts of L.A. “Suddenly my aunt bought a house here, then my cousins moved here.” Ultimately, she says, five families moved to Eagle Rock because of her.
Central to Filipino life back then was a place called Philippine Village. Located on a nondescript stretch of Eagle Rock Boulevard, the center occupied a single-story strip mall that attracted a mostly Filipino crowd. Among other things, the building was home to Radio Manila, the nation’s first 24-hour radio station dedicated to Filipino-Americans. Eyeing the building’s potential as a recreational hub, Josette’s aunt, Pitz Ballesteros, rented a banquet hall-sized room and converted it into a dancehall on the weekends.
“A lot of Filipinos went there to dance,” Josette recalls. The building quickly became an epicenter for the growing community, and business owners used the adjacent office spaces to set up services like temp agencies, daycare, and a mailroom, ideal for newly immigrated Filipinos needing a place to land. “It gave us a sense of community,” Josette says. “We belonged here.”
When it was announced in 2016 that the site where Philippine Village stood would be converted into housing developments, the news came as a blow to locals, who viewed the place as an important social connector. Without it, a central piece of their neighborhood would be missing.
When I ask Josette if she thinks Eagle Rock Plaza can ever fill the space left by Philippine Village, she’s hesitant. “In some ways, yes.” She pauses. “But not really.”
Of all things, a grocery store certainly wasn’t what most Filipino residents in Eagle Rock had in mind as the replacement to their beloved community center. But in its own way, Seafood City, with its bustling food court and easy connection to Manila life, has become a new kind of anchor, a place where locals can run errands and count on seeing at least one familiar face.
“I don’t miss a week without going to Seafood City,” Josette laughs. “Even if I don’t buy anything, I just want to be there.”
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Others in the neighborhood feel the same way. On a recent Friday afternoon, I meet a woman named Priscilla. A resident of nearby Pasadena, Priscilla tells me she makes the trip here twice a week, usually to pick up groceries. But often, she’ll come to see friends. Leaning against an empty retail kiosk where two other women are giggling at something they’re watching on a laptop, she describes the mall as a hangout spot. “This is where you see your people,” she says.
They get up to leave, and head to Chowking, another popular fast-food eatery in the mall (her favorite dish is the chicken soup). After, she says, they’ll get bowls of halo halo, a typical dessert made with shaved ice, evaporated milk, and fruit. “In any group, no matter what ethnicity, you always connect over food,” she tells me. “That’s how it is here.”