Deli-thin beef tri-tip, mac and cheese, ribs and 16-hour roasted pulled pork. Fresh cornbread, hot links and roasted chicken. From a vantage point, the offerings at Park’s Finest are like every other barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles. But delve in deeper and you’ll find the important subtleties.
The hot links are crafted with a sweet Filipino sausage, and the corn bread is mixed with a bit of rice flour and baked on a banana leaf for flavor. The beef is served in a coconut milk cream, best ladled over a plate of steaming jasmine rice. The signature sauce is a delectable concoction of vinegar, garlic, chili, a nod to the adobo flavors of the Philippines.
“The whole idea is to dip the food in the sawsawan,” chef and owner Johneric Concordia says, referring to the Filipino word for sauce, which can be used as both a verb and a noun.
Park’s Finest is named after Echo Park, where Concordia and his buddies spent their childhood on the grill of every neighborhood park, roasting meat on charcoal.
“It was a way to just hang out. You had a DJ and a barbecue and we kept out of trouble,” he says. “We were the barbecue crew that partied the best.”
Concordia comes from a long line of grill masters. His father was a Filipino-American immigrant who loved food. When he was enlisted in the US Navy during the Vietnam War, the story is that he would routinely raid the commissary for ingredients during their cookout sessions on the top deck of the boat. It was he who taught his sons the basics.
Years later, in 2009, Park’s Finest was born as a catering company and finally, in 2012, as a full-fledged brick-and-mortar restaurant in the heart of historic Filipinotown. Behind the scenes are five ethnically Filipino business partners who all grew up in Los Angeles. The menu pays deep respects to their heritage. The San Pablo pulled pork is a homage to the province Concordia’s family came from and the Mama Leah’s coconut beef is named after his grandmother, who was a Seventh-day Adventist that didn’t eat pork.
“The dish was originally made with water buffalo, coconut cream, fish sauce and chili,” Concordia says. When the family immigrated to the United States, it became a family heirloom of sorts.
Even the Ann’s cornbread bibingka simmers with history. It was a signature of Concordia’s god brother’s high school sweetheart — Ann, the dish’s namesake, who would bring it to all the parties. And the fact that the short ribs are paired with horseradish cream is because of Concordia’s father’s obsession with Arby’s Horsey sauce.
While the flavors of the food are inspired by his heritage, Concordia doesn’t like to categorize his food as strictly Filipino barbecue. At best, it’s Filipino-inspired barbecue.
He laughs when I bring up that people have dubbed 2017 the year of Filipino food and the latest big food trend.
“What does that even mean?” he says, noting that Filipino cuisine has been around for centuries.
“We’re Los Angeles barbecue,” he insists. Concordia and his buddies, after all, spent their entire lives grilling in and around East Los Angeles, before it became gentrified. Vendors, he said, would sell elote (Mexican street corn) on the park corners while they held their barbecues. While the elote vendors exist to some degree today, it’s simply not the same.
“Growing up, it was always corn on the cob. You don’t have a dude that walks the blocks anymore,” he says, with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. For that reason, elote has snuck its way into the menu at Park’s, with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and cayenne pepper.
Yet, the restaurant is far more than just an attempt to hang on to what was. It’s a bold attempt to reclaim the community and ward off attempts at gentrification.
“We barbecued it on every single street in Echo Park and expanded throughout Los Angeles,” he says. “We’re setting the flag in now and saying we have the history.”
Whereas other traditional Asian enclaves in Los Angeles like Chinatown, Koreatown and Little Tokyo are flourishing because of economic investment from overseas financing and associations, Concordia points out that Filipinotown has been slow to catch up.
But what they lacked in money, they made up for in community involvement.
“We’re a product of the environment. We didn’t have money. The whole community kept us out of gangs,” he says, noting that it was non-profit agencies like the Search to Involve Pilipino Americans that mentored them and kept them out of the streets as kids. He also credits the late Michael Lao, the former dean of Glendale Community College's Hospitality and Tourism department, for providing them the resources on how to start their own business.
“Half of us were high school drop-outs and only two of us had food experience. I worked at a Denny’s,” Concordia says, referring to the co-founders of Park’s.
With that, he feels forever indebted to the community that raised him and hopes that Park’s will be one of many future Filipino-owned and operated businesses in historic Filipinotown.
“Come here, we’ll feed you and take care of you,” he says. “If you want to bring your guest from out of town and you want something you’re not going to have in any other city, this is it.”
Top image: Pork ribs, coconut beef and mac and cheese | Clarissa Wei