When she decided to open the only Filipino restaurant in West Los Angeles, Chef Barb bypassed the fusion wave and stuck to her roots. “Items like chicken adobo ($10 a la carte) and lumpia (13 pieces, $8) are traditional and authentic,” she says. “I use chicken, pork and beef, nothing out of the ordinary like pork ears and tongues. We have dishes that people aren’t afraid to try, and non-Filipinos love it as much as Filipinos.”
Distilling the Filipino Difference
Big Boi is as unique as Filipino food. She uses the example of chicken adobo. “It’s easy to describe a tender piece of chicken in a soy sauce and vinegar marinade. It’s so simple but extraordinary, bursting with so many different flavors. Traditional Filipino food screams with flavors.”
Yet Big Boi’s fare is far different from the Manila greasy spoons in the South Bay 20 miles away. She was deeply influenced by her mother, Fely, and father, Angel Cabanez, who went by the nickname Boi. “I grew up with healthy versions of Filipino food.” She explains, “When my dad had a heart attack at age 46, my mom had to change his diet, use leaner cuts without sacrificing the traditional flavors.” The dietary change may have added 30 years to Boi’s life. He died at age 76.
The restaurant’s design is as deliberate as the menu. “The restaurant space wasn’t originally up to par, so we redid it. Just as we did at B Sweet, I had to have the ability for customers to look from the front of the house to the very back of the kitchen. They see that it takes a hardworking staff from the helpers at the front, cashier at the counter to the cooks in back.”
“I also wanted an eclectic look.” Chef Barb points to the modern take of the wooden fork and spoon seen on the walls of many Filipino dining rooms. Her business partner Kurt Steinitz collaborated with a carpenter to create the unadorned utensils that have customers asking where they can purchase a pair.
In the three months since Big Boi opened, she has employed a diverse combination of personalities, releasing those who didn’t fit and keeping all of those who did. “We went into a rough patch the first couple of weeks. It’s tough weeding out employees who aren’t right. Lately, though, I’ve been lucky with staffing.”
Related and Personal
The constant on her staff the last three years has been Malyssa Bernas, her assistant and catering lead. “It’s not easy to keep me straight,” Chef Barb says of her niece. Family comes up again and again in her conversations.
For Chef Barb, the concept of family encompasses Westside Filipinos who comprise over 40 percent of her clientele, millennials, and families with kids. She patterned Big Boi after her childhood memories in North Hollywood. “Our home was the hub to bring people together. Filipino families love to share. It also applies to Big Boi. When people say it smells like home, I realize this isn’t a job because I’m passionate about what I’ve been doing for the last nine years.”
Big Boi is open 12 to 11 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; 12 to 8 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday. Located at 2027 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90025 and goBigBoi on the web. No reservations accepted.
Anthony Maddela writes about Filipinos in Southern California. He birds with his family in Los Angeles.
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