Alvin Cailan’s Filipino-born grandmother gave him the nickname “Amboy,” a word for an American-born person of Filipino descent.
It’s now the name of the chef’s latest venture in Chinatown, Amboy Quality Meats & Delicious Burgers — a gourmet burger stand and butcher shop that offers premium cuts, sourced from small suppliers.
Best known for Eggslut, Cailan is now in the breakfast sandwich business. Cailan is happy to be engaged on this new project in Chinatown. He’s very familiar with Far East Plaza. There he launched Ramen Champ, which he sold to a Japanese chef in 2015, and his experimental restaurant incubator, Unit 120.
Amboy Quality Meats & Delicious Burgers opened in May 2020 as a direct response to the pandemic. Occupying the former space of Roy Choi’s Chego, Cailan intended to model and launch a Filipino steakhouse.
“That’s pretty much what ‘Amboy’ cuisine is,” Cailan said. “I’m Filipino. I just love steakhouses — the old-school ‘L.A. Confidential’-style steak house, a small intimate place. That’s what we wanted to do. I even had black Naugahyde banquettes installed.”
Having procured the space in December 2019, the steakhouse concept stalled with the advent of the pandemic lockdown in March.
“Things changed, obviously,” Cailan said. “There was no pressure really on us at all to continue with that concept. Maybe later on we’ll revisit that again.”
His pivot tried to address the realities and new demands of his customers in lockdown.
“Creating a butcher shop or what I like to call a ‘boutique steak shop’ was more important at the time, because a lot of people were working at home, or still are,” he said. “We wanted to be able to provide a relatively affordable alternative to butcher shop quality meats. That’s what we ended up being, and it worked out.”
Born and raised in Pico Rivera, Cailan was introduced to professional kitchens as a high school student, when his mother enlisted him as a dishwasher at a Catholic retreat center in Alhambra. Soon, he was handling all aspects of the kitchen’s operations.
“There were a lot of people in transition in that kitchen,” he recalled.
“We were changing cooks all the time, so I was the only one there for that duration of time who was able to do pretty much everything. So, I was relied upon.”
Cailan attended Cal State Fullerton, graduating with a business degree and a concentration in management.
“It’s paid off. I learned a lot,” Cailan said.
He was working as an account representative with a construction company when he was laid off. The result was a generous severance package intended to buy his loyalty and discretion over some of the company’s business practices.
“It gave me the runway to actually pursue what I really wanted to do, which was cook,” he recalled.
Cailan studied at Oregon Culinary Institute and subsequently had an informal apprenticeship in Napa Valley, including stints at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Bouchon.
“It was more a quest to learn,” he said. “I just bounced around. It was mostly for free, just to learn. I had friends out in Napa Valley, and they would take me to work.”
When he launched the Eggslut food truck in 2011, it resulted in hours-long lines for its egg sandwiches and its first brick-and-mortar location at Grand Central Market in 2013. It was also among the first new wave of younger vendors opening at the market.
“There were the legacy tenants who were there,” he said. “We were among the new guys who walked in there and tried to do something creative and new.”
Eggslut’s phenomenal success led to nearly four years in New York City.
“I always had the romance in my head of working in New York and walking to work and feeling the energy,” Cailan said. “When the opportunity came to work at Chef’s Club Counter and Chef’s Club, I definitely took it into consideration, and I tried to live my dream out in New York.
“I eventually opened The Usual (at the Nolitan Hotel) and it opened with really great reviews. We were written (about) in The New Yorker for our fried chicken. We had a great run there.”
In 2018, Cailan began hosting the web series “The Burger Show” airing on YouTube and Hulu, which marked his trek back to Far East Plaza.
“I took over that space because of its legendary status with Roy (Choi) being there and it used to be a Sam Woo Barbecue back in the day,” Cailan said about his present location.
“It’s basically a legacy location. I wasn’t really looking to do anything really crazy. It’s now really a place to do burgers because of ‘The Burger Show.’ I wanted to do fun things and use it as a lab to perfect Amboy the cookbook and Amboy cuisine.”
His cookbook, “Amboy: Recipes from the Filipino-American Dream,” was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in August 2020.
The burger menu at Amboy Quality Meats is basic; however, the selection of burgers is not. He formed relationships with small purveyors to collect the prime-grade cuts that are for sale in the shop’s window.
“I have a relationship with Certified Angus Beef,” Cailan said.
“I’ve been working with them for the last 10 years with Eggslut and all my other projects. For the last five years, I’ve been using the American wagyu from Snake River Farms and I have a relationship with them. We try to use Demkota Ranch out of South Dakota, we source their prime-grade briskets, New Yorks, chuck rolls because we use all of that for our burgers. So essentially our burger is 100% prime Demkota Ranch beef, (brokered) from Certified Angus Beef.”
Suffice it to say, Amboy is not serving ordinary burgers.
“Sometimes we’ll have trim from our Snake River Farm stuff, so there’s definitely some American wagyu sprinkled into our burger mix,” he says.
A burger comprised of certified prime and wagyu beef and priced at $10 or less is not an ordinary burger.
A riff on In-N-Out’s Double-Double, the classic double ($7) features two blended burger patties, caramelized onions, American cheese, pickles and sauce, all served between toasted sesame seed buns from Bread Bar LA.
The Grizzly ($9) sports two “tallow fried” patties, American cheese, shaved red onions, pickles and yellow mustard “in a squishy bun.”
The Picante ($10) has two patties with provolone cheese, sliced red onion, pickled peppers and spicy mayo on a toasted poppy seed bun. For more meat and a thicker single patty, consider the Royale ($12) with American cheese and red onions or the DH Burger ($14), a 10-ounce patty with provolone, caramelized onions and garlic confit.
Don’t forget this is also a steak boutique. The small window in front displays the freshest cuts.
These can include picanha of American wagyu from Snake River Farms, cut for one person ($20); ribeye, Certified Angus prime ($20); New York strip ($20); cowboy ribeye from Double “R” Ranch ($50); delmonico from Demkota Ranch ($20); or a tomahawk of Westholme Australian wagyu ($159). There is also Galbi, sliced short rib from Niman Ranch ($18) and marinated asada for tacos ($10). Larger cuts are also available on the online menu and there a selection of seasoning blends and sauces. Any carnivorous connoisseur should find satisfaction at Amboy Quality Meats.
Stay tuned for inventive weekly specials as well.
“We actually did a steak frite week, last week,” he said enthusiastically. “We did the classic au poivre, we did a steak Diane, we did a steak with chimichurri, and then on Saturday we did a Filipino bistek, a Filipino dish made with a soy calamansi glaze with onions. We try to do some type of Filipino-influenced dish whenever we run specials.”
Reflecting on his return to Chinatown, Cailan said he’s excited.
“It’s like a whole crew of food lovers in Chinatown,” he added.
“That’s really ultimately why I always go back there. I love Far East Plaza, what it stands for. A lot of great restaurants came out of that plaza. Working with (Far East Plaza’s) George Yu, who I consider a mentor, really gave us opportunities to fulfill our culinary dreams without breaking the bank. I’m really grateful for that. Chinatown for me — culinarily — is home. I’m just glad to be back.”