Pop-up restaurants are all the rage in Los Angeles, allowing for chefs to test a number of culinary ideas without the potential risk of a brick and mortar. Yet finding the right space for these pop-up events can be time consuming. Enter Unit 120, the culinary incubator launched this year by Eggslut’s chef Alvin Cailan in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza.
Meant as an arena for chefs to be able to experiment, play with, and test out their burgeoning food concepts, the space became an instant hit for local foodies always seeking to be the first to eat at the next big culinary concept. More importantly, however, was the space’s impact on Chinatown, and Los Angeles’ culinary scene as a whole. By providing a theatre to showcase the emerging culinary talent, Unit 120 has effectively leveled the playing field allowing young, emerging chefs the same opportunities that chefs working in larger, more well-known restaurants are.
Receiving enough critical acclaim to last a life time, Alvin Cailan could have been content resting on his laurels with the great success of Eggslut, the widely popular breakfast sandwich concept currently operating out of Downtown Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Yet Cailan desired to help other chefs receive the same opportunities that he had by offering a stage that would present their talents to the world.
Unit 120 was not the chef’s first foray into Chinatown, as Cailan was involved with the Ramen Champ noodle house that opened earlier last year, although now the chef has since parted ways with the restaurant. Cailan decided to open Unit 120 to aid "highly talented chefs with a really great concept who are looking for a permanent home, but still have to showcase their stuff in order to get more exposure," he explained to LA Weekly.
The space is simple and minimally adorned, with just a few tables, allowing the chefs operating within the space a blank canvas to do with what they choose. In addition to offering a permitted space within which to operate, Cailan also offers the restaurants he features infrastructural aid as well, including resources like legal experts and restaurant design teams.
“I’m here to help connect the dots, if needed,” Cailan explained to Los Angeles Magazine. “We know accountants that specialize in the restaurant industry, lawyers, real estate agents. Before they make that jump, new restaurateurs can try out an idea here and see if it gains some traction. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But they won’t be spending a half million dollars on a restaurant and closing in a year.”
The Next Generation
What is perhaps most admirable about Unit 120 is the opportunity it gives to young chefs throughout Los Angeles to pursue their culinary talents. Many young chefs in LA are currently working as sous chefs at a number of the city’s top restaurants, but have yet to receive their share of critical acclaim. By breaking away from their restaurants to experiment with their own ideas in this safe, testing ground, these chefs are thus able to build and/or launch their own restaurant concepts.
The first to utilize the Unit 120 space was Filipino pop-up concept LASA. Launched by brothers Chad and Chase Valencia, LASA had previously been operating a monthly dinner series out of a small space in Frogtown’s Elysian Building before making the move to Unit 120.
“There was a sense of limitation, running things once a month,” Chase Valencia explained to LA Weekly. “With residency, we can let ideas develop and really expand the menu.” “We’ll get to ferment all types of things. It’s exciting,” Chad added.
After deciding to operate out of Unit 120, both brothers quit their day jobs, determined to pour their full energies into the concept. Running with a four-course menu that changes often depending on what is available at farmers markets, the brothers operate out of the space Fridays through Sundays, offering the dinner for a mere $48. Dishes offered include traditional Filipino cuisine such as pancit with bagoong XO sauce, crispy duck arroz caldo, pear ginataan with coconut milk and pandan syrup, as well as more California inspired dishes such as the winter citrus and radicchio salad.
"This is definitely the perfect next step for us, after the pop-up but before a brick-and-mortar," Chad Valencia explained to LA Weekly.
The reception to LASA’s residency at Unit 120 has been overwhelmingly positive and the brothers are set to be opening their own brick and mortar in the near future.
Other restaurants electing to operate out of the space have included Carlow Lamagna’s “Twisted Filipino,” Charles Olalia’s “A’Postrophe,” Jonathan Whitener’s “Here’s Looking at You,” and Chef Andy Ricker of Pok Pok acclaim. The space will also be made available for visiting chefs from out of town.