Wash, wax, and pancit in the San Fernando Valley
At Cruisers Car Wash in front of the Northridge Costco, the choice isn’t as simple as wash, wax, or radiator fluid flush. Walk past blue pylons into the gift shop to pay, and there’s the usual mix of greeting cards, massage chairs, and air fresheners. But there’s also a hidden eatery called Lilian’s Bread & Sweets, a bakery and café that’s served some of the Valley’s best Filipino food since 2015.
Manila native Lilian Masaya launched her eponymous business inside Cruisers with only a silver “DINER” sign over the entrance that indicates that anybody even serves food here. The defunct diner was probably fun, but nowhere near as flavorful as what Masaya serves from the bakery case or stainless steel bins at her turo-turo (point-point in Tagalog) counter.
Technically, Lilian’s has a printed menu on the wall, but don’t take that as gospel. Instead, point at whatever dish looks good and the counter person will gladly explain.
Most people grab-and-go, but it’s possible to snag a tray and sit at a table or grey booth with pastel green and pink stripes. License plates ring the room, and big American flags hang beneath high ceilings. The setting is a kooky, amazing tribute to LA’s food and car cultures.
Mix-and-match combo plates, which cost between $4.99 and $8.99, are the best way to sample Lilian’s comfort food. Anything is also available a la carte, ranging from $2.50 for a small vegetable, pork, or chicken dish to $10 for a large beef dish.
Two visits yielded delicious finds like boneless fried milkfish belly and bone-in chunks of chicken adobo stewed in tangy soy-vinegar sauce. Combos come with steamed white rice and/or pancit, rice vermicelli stir-fried with vegetables and chicken.
Masaya makes sticky, fat-pocked longanisa links on the premises and pairs them with rice or a fried egg. Bicol express, named for an island-filled region southeast of Manila, is a tender stewed pork dish cooked with coconut milk and jalapeños that looks wan, but packs a punch.
Dishes like pancit and longanisa have practically become mainstream in LA thanks to restaurants like LASA and RiceBar. Dilis will probably never achieve pop status in the U.S. since too many squeamish people take issue when their seafood has a face or tastes “fishy,” but it’s a strong order at Lilian’s. Small, meaty smelts are marinated in vinegar, ginger, and jalapeños. Though the fish contains tiny bones, but they’re 100% edible, including the heads. White rice helps to temper the tasty fish funk.
Mongo is a thick, well-spiced mung bean stew cooked with floppy “crab” meat that’s apparently one of famed Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao’s favorite dishes. The yellow bean is so versatile that it’s even used in desserts.
Also order okoy, a crispy fried shrimp and vegetable fritter that can be dressed with spicy vinegar floating with chilies and chopped onions poured from syrup pitchers on the counter. Depending on the day, Lilian might be serving kaldereta (beef or goat stewed in tomato sauce). The tongue-in-cheek menu also states that the B in bistek tagalog stands for “beef, braised and buttery.” The slow-cooked meat comes infused with lemon juice and soy sauce.
Earlier in the morning, Lilian lets diners “Rice & Shine” all day with high-value breakfast plates that team garlic fried rice and two eggs with a choice of protein. Longanisa and milkfish belly work as proteins. So do tinsilog (smoked fish), tosilog (“sweet & zesty pork bits”) and tapsilog (garlicky beef jerky), for veteran Filipino diners.
Chicken empanadas ($1.99) are flaky, egg-washed half-moons filled with shredded chicken, vegetables (mainly minced carrot), and raisins. A single empanada was surprisingly filling and fairly sweet, which means anyone looking to try more food here should show restraint when ordering them.
Hopia are flaky pastries, cousin to the moon cake that apparently originated in China’s Fujian province come as egg-washed domes on trays by Lilian’s register, filled with a choice of ube, mongo (sweet mung bean) or baboy (savory peanut and onion).
Thankfully, Lilian’s also contributes to LA’s halo-halo craze. The name of this multi-faceted dessert ($4.95) translates from Tagalog as “mix-mix.” As the menu says, halo-halo is “a dessert so nice, they named it twice.” This version includes a sweet red bean base, a layer of jellies, mung beans, shaved macapuno (young coconut) and burro, a stubby Filipino varietal of banana. Next comes shaved ice with sweetened condensed milk. Up top, expect sweet Maraschino cherries, scoops of earthy ube and creamy macapuno ice creams, a firm flan square, crunchy cornflakes, and a hollow green and tan striped cookie that looks like a barber shop pole and could be a straw. Halo-halo is exhausting to describe, but a joy to eat.
This is a small fraction of the dishes in Lilian’s deep repertoire. For a more complete picture, just eat at Lilian’s Bread & Sweets every day for a month. She also caters the full line-up.
Clearly, Lilian’s Bread & Sweets has found an audience. During both meals, Masaya had a steady stream of customers. She also plans to open a second location in North Hills at the corner of Nordhoff Street and Sepulveda Boulevard, which will debut as soon as May with a larger dining room. In the meantime, swing by the original location for a meal, and maybe even a car wash.
Lilian’s Bread and Sweets, 8870 Tampa Ave., Northridge, 818–927–1917
“This Northridge Car Wash Hides a Surprisingly Tasty Filipino Cafe Inside.” Eater LA – All. https://la.eater.com/2018/5/11/17209848/lilians-bread-sweets-filipino-comfort-food-northridge-car-wash.