LA’s new Sari Sari Store draws crowds hungry for Filipino eats, bowl-style
LOS ANGELES — Iconic century-old Grand Central Market (GCM) this month welcomed the much-talked about Filipino-inspired “Sari Sari Store,” which competes with more than 100 stalls in the high-rent tourist destination in downtown Los Angeles.
Sari Sari Store, owned and operated by James Beard-nominated pastry chef Margarita Manzke and her culinary wiz husband, Walter, have added the Philippine touch to the international delis, butchers, dry good stores, fusion restos, grocers, baristas and bakers at the famous tourist watering hole. The Market has always reflected the changing population of downtown LA, located between Broadway and Hill streets.
Walter, whose heritage is German, and Margie, who grew up in Subic Bay, are not new to the hotel and restaurant industry, having perfected their epicurean skills at Patina and Spago, among others, and simultaneously run high-end ventures such as the French-inspired Republique at the historic Campanile (formerly the Charlie Chaplin building) on La Brea.
As one treads the quaint entrance of grand ol’ Market, one cannot miss the contemporary wrap-around seating of Sari Sari, which is decorated with an overhead display of cans of sardines, Spam, Pamana brand vinegar, soy sauce, Sky Flakes, anything and everything (“sari sari”) reminiscent of the “tindahan” or corner stores from one’s childhood days back home.
Sari Sari offers bar and communal seating. One patron from Pasig City, Delia N. who works at nearby City Hall, said the atmosphere at the restaurant reminds her of stalls at the Pariancillo market where one can order “lang lang” (noodle soup), puto or arroz caldo while seated near the cook.
The downtown novelty features rice bowl delicacies from the Philippines with a fusion of contemporary flavors to cater to international tastes: arroz caldo, lechon manok, Pinoy BBQ, sisig fried rice, Sari sari Breakfast, a take-off from the more common “Sinalog dishes” consisting of garlic fried rice, eggs and longganisa. Sari Sari’s version includes Marge’s take on pan desal – more buttery and comes with her French version of matamis sa bao or coconut jam.
The best seller is the summer halo-halo, which tastes delectably as a fusion of guinatan (coconut milk-based dessert with tapiocas) and summer fruits, with a touch of flan and generous ice cream topping. Sari Sari’s shaved ice has a watermelon-base.
Marge and Walter met while the latter worked as the head chef at Patina on Melrose Avenue. A writer for LA Eater Mathew Kang chronicles their partnership based on Walter’s recollections: “We met at Patina. I was the chef and Marge came by while she was finishing an externship out of the Culinary Institute of America at Spago. I interviewed her, hired her, she worked for me quite some time…When we started dating, I connected her with Melisse (a high-end French restaurant in Santa Monica ) and she became the sous chef there.”
The bond gave birth to a thriving entrepreneurial partnership starting with a few restaurants and a hotel in Carmel. Coming back to LA around 2006, the couple opened Church and State, also offering French classics and creative cocktails. Added to their chain is the hip spot for modern tacos, ceviche and other innovations of Mexican cuisines, “Petty Cash,” on Beverly Blvd.
The couple now owns three Pink’s franchises in Manila as well as the popular soda fountain-gelato Farmacy, among others.
In an interview with this writer, Walter said they decided to open a stall at the Grand Central Market on a Philippine-themed menu, recognizing that downtown LA is a big hub of Filipino employees and workers who could always follow the smell of that “adobo” and would not resist mouthwatering halo halo.
Los Angeles County government and LA City Hall are but a few yards away from the market. Sari Sari now competes with about 17 Filipino restaurants a few miles away in Historic Filipinotown, which has seen a resurgence in the last ten years.
“Filipino cuisine in the last few years has attracted a huge following from a diversity of patrons due most probably to the internet and social media,” Walter observes. The couple’s audience goes beyond first and second generation Filipinos in the area, but also includes thousands of tourists who visit the market daily.
During the opening week in July, the store had to close one day to evaluate a new strategy to satisfy a continuous flow of patrons. “We couldn’t cope with the demand every day. We open at 8 a.m. and by one o-clock, we’ve ran out of everything!” said one of the 12 Sari Sari employees.
After two weeks of operation, Sari Sari decided to change hours to open at 10 a.m. and close at 6 p.m., every day except Monday.
Margie usually supervises the eatery, tasting marinades, baking bread, ensuring the freshness of each order. Before three, she runs out to pick up their kids from school – a two- and a six-year-old. Walter not only manages the operations but also takes time to meet customers, shakes hands and take photos for patrons drawn to its novelty.
Then there are 160 employees to supervise at the other chain, Republique, where escargots en croute, complements Margie’s baguette and chicken adobo, among other yummies.