IN recent years, Los Angeles has witnessed a handful of contemporary Filipino restaurants open up, typically the ventures of second-generation Filipino Americans who have cut their teeth cooking other cuisines and are circling back to the food they grew up eating.
Journey some 40 miles down to Orange County and while the selection of modern, interpreted Filipino cuisine is not as abundant (yet) as LA, the restaurants are leaving diners satisfied and racking up praise.
One such Fil-Am chef instrumental in the OC’s dining scene is Ross Pangilinan of Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in Santa Ana and Terrace by Mix Mix at the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
In the past three years alone, the accolades have swirled in for Pangilinan, including being named Orange County Business Journal’s Chef of the Year and Rising Star Chef of the Year by the Orange County Restaurant Association’s Golden Foodies.
His restaurants have been listed among EaterLA’s Orange County’s 19 Hottest Restaurants 2019, Orange Coast Magazine’s Best New Restaurants, and Modern Luxury Orange County’s 10 Most Exciting New Restaurants 2019.
“In LA and San Francisco, Filipino food has been very trendy and popular. There are so many talented Filipino chefs that have worked at good restaurants and are now going on their own and I’m happy to be a part of that and contribute. The awards just solidify that this is the new American cuisine,” Pangilinan shared with the Asian Journal at a recent event celebrating his many honors.
A more recent stride is Mix Mix Kitchen Bar earning a spot on the Michelin Guide’s California Bib Gourmand list, which is a selection of restaurants recommended for “good value.” (This past May marked the inaugural statewide Michelin Guide. Irenia by chef Ryan Garlitos in Santa Ana also made the list.)
“Chef/owner Ross Pangilinan delights everyone with his surprising, subtle and often ingenious spin on Filipino fare,” the guide wrote. “That means that every dish seems contemporary and true to its southern California location, but the kitchen always returns to hints and touches of the chef’s background.”
Pangilinan, who was raised in La Mirada, recalls growing up surrounded by his paternal grandparents’ cooking.
“They were cooking Filipino food every day for us. That always sticks with me, knowing those are my roots and introducing those flavors to my food, even using French technique and local ingredients but adding a little bit of fish sauce or kalamansi,” he recounted.
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, the Fil-Am chef moved to France to work at two-star Michelin restaurant, Les Trois Marches, in Versailles before returning to Southern California where he landed at Pinot Provence at the Westin South Coast Plaza, which was part of Joachim Splichal’s Patina Restaurant Group.
That led to a stint as sous chef at Patina at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA, during the time the restaurant earned a Michelin star.
“If you’re really passionate and go into this industry and can work harder than everyone next to you, then you’ll be okay. For me, that’s what I had to do, especially being a little Filipino kid working next to older people who have been in the industry, I just put my head down and worked harder than everyone else. It’s paying off,” he mused.
After Patina, he was part of the opening team of Italian restaurant Sinatra inside Encore at the Wynn in Las Vegas, and then was executive chef at Leatherby’s Café Rouge, a steakhouse at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts for seven years, which merited him a spot on Zagat’s 30 under 30 list.
With a fine-dining track record, Pangilinan took on the challenge of opening up his own restaurant in 2016 called Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in Santa Ana, a showcase of his Filipino heritage and his career as a chef working with Italian and French cuisine. Two years later, Terrace by Mix Mix at the upscale South Coast Plaza was opened last fall as an offshoot, offering similar menu items.
“It’s more of a fusion of French and Italian but a lot of Asian — particularly Filipino — influences. We use a lot of kalamansi and coconut milk, for example. It’s all the food that I learned how to cook as a professional but also loved to eat growing up, all combined in what we do here today,” Pangilinan said.
At Mix Mix, you can find a Filipino ceviche (essentially a kinilaw dish) using yellowfin tuna, coconut lime, avocado, pork cracklings (chicharon) and Thai chili and a shrimp lumpia appetizer with vegetables, grilled pineapple and a spicy aioli.
A stand-out dish is the pork cheek adobo, with a fattier cut of pork not used traditionally, seasoned with a chimichurri sauce and served with garlic fried rice and egg. These co-exist with dishes like bacon-wrapped dates, a soft egg raviolo, or a spaghetti alla chitarra dish with rabbit ragout.
“You can get a good adobo at a mom and pop Filipino restaurant so ours has to be different and unique, yet approachable to all kinds of diners,” Pangilinan said.
Arguably the most popular Filipino dessert, halo-halo (which means mix mix in English) is not in a tall glass with shaved ice and a slew of ingredients underneath. His is presented as a “tropical verrine”: coconut panna cotta, mango sorbet, macadamia nuts, tropical fruit and passion fruit.
The flavor influences are easy to pinpoint in Pangilinan’s cooking, but the menus cannot be boxed into one particular cuisine — it’s not entirely Filipino, nor is it just Italian or French. Rather, he says he brings an internationally-focused restaurant concept, using what is accessible ingredient-wise in Southern California.
Though the ‘Filipino’ dishes do not bear Tagalog names upfront, Pangilinan intends for them to be educational and a jumping-off point for more traditional and expansive Filipino menus elsewhere.
“For me, I don’t give menu items a Filipino name. I give them approachable names so people get introduced to it and be more familiar, which can lead them to go on to a more [traditional] Filipino restaurant and have that recognition with what they had at Mix Mix,” he said.
Both restaurants offer prix fixe menus with wine pairings (in the $40-70 range). At Mix Mix, the “Oui Chef” is a five-course prix fixe chef’s table experience with Pangilinan’s ever-changing favorite creations. Terrace by Mix Mix offers an eight to 10-course Omakase Style Tasting Menu that runs $125 per person with two seatings every night and a $20 three-course lunch menu.
Though these special menus may attract a particular dining crowd, the main offerings at both places are meant to be savored and shared small plates-style. “Hopefully diners feel that we are very genuine. Our food is very genuine and so is our service,” Pangilinan said. “I hope they don’t think we’re some restaurant that thinks they’re so great and up there because we do everything from the heart.”
Orange County is where Pangilinan continues to leave his mark, but he’s set to make his way up to LA County with ReMix Kitchen Bar at the Long Beach Exchange, a shopping and dining center in east Long Beach. It’ll likewise be a full-service restaurant with a bar and similar dishes like the two other locations.
“It’s still a bit away until that opens, but in the meantime, we’re going to keep on pushing and continuing to work on our restaurants in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana,” he added.
Being a chef and owner these past three years has afforded him the creative flexibility to experiment with food; the dual roles have also taught him lessons in looking at all the elements that go into running a restaurant.
“I have so much more appreciation for the entire team as a whole and for the front of house. Before when you’re just a chef, you only worry about back house and getting food out and not really worrying about front of the house,” Pangilinan reflected. “But now, as a business owner, I truly care about making sure my staff is taking care of our guests in the front, making sure timing is correct…at the end of the day, making sure that the guests are leaving happy and that we’re able to make the business work.”