Nobody wants a comedy show at dinner. Good comedy and good food under the same roof? Just ask any comedian — it doesn't happen.
But on Wednesday nights at “Motherland,” a free weekly show inside a Filipino restaurant in Eagle Rock, a minor miracle occurs: great comedy in the dining room of a bustling restaurant, where monstrous oval plates of egg noodle pancit, fatty pork sisig and cans of beer crowd the tabletops even as the audience's attention is locked on the performers.
For C.J. Toledano, the show’s creator and a first-generation Filipino American, running a comedy show inside Kusina Filipina has to be part of some grand scheme to connect with his roots, right? “I just saw they had a karaoke stage on Yelp,” Toledano says.
Joking aside, a coalescence in the Eagle Rock Filipino American community has led to this uniquely Los Angeles and highly entertaining weekly arrangement.
On this particular evening, actress and stand-up comedian Felicia Folkes takes the stage. She’s killing it, while the smell of meaty, crispy lumpia billows through the dimly lighted room. Co-owners Jun Miranda and Vener Ramos expedite a rush of food and drinks to the evening’s mostly Filipino customers.
Though small sign holders advertise buckets of Modelo for $24.99, it certainly seems like everybody has instead opted to get tallboys of Red Horse, the extra-strong Filipino lager that’s smooth, sweet and potent. Toledano stands by the soundboard behind the bar, and in between laughs he quietly roasts co-host Andrew Orolfo for eating dessert before his set.
One of the hurdles to comedy-plus-dinner is usually indifferent restaurant owners. But “Jun [Miranda] was all about it,” Toledano recalls. “He just said, ‘The restaurant is yours on Wednesday nights.’” Miranda corroborates his enthusiasm: “I immediately said yes. Of course, I wanted to help the Filipino community.”
But the show doesn’t work only because of joint interest; it takes the combined experience of Toledano and his co-hosts Orolfo (also first-generation Filipino American) and Rob Haze. “I have a specific vision for the show and the comedians who do it. [I want] people I’m fans of,” Toledano says about booking comedians.
“There’s math to it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It can be exciting. The comics are truly from everywhere. So many different styles.”
“Motherland” is starting to attract a wider audience outside of the Pinoy community. “This year I noticed more non-Filipinos coming into the restaurant,” Miranda says.
A lot of those customers also are experiencing Filipino cooking for the first time. Even Toledano himself has reconnected with it.
“I hated all of this food growing up because my parents forced me to eat it,” admits Toledano, a self-described “ ’90s kid eating garbage” who grew up in Erie, Pa. “Jun knows I’m pretty Americanized. My parents ate Filipino food for every dinner, and I was eating bagel bites.”
Consider that comedy club food is typically similarly monotonous — a domain ruled by washed-out nachos, uninspired chicken tenders, Sysco-driven quesadillas and the stank of dirty fryer oil. But here at “Motherland,” all the starkly bright, funky and fatty flavors of Filipino food are as electric as the performances onstage.
Crispy sisig is made by deep-frying chopped pork belly until it's golden brown, then tossing it in brightly acidic and fruity calamansi juice, diced onion, bell pepper, ginger and, for good measure, chicken liver spread. Dinakdakan, a combination of grilled and boiled pork belly, is mixed with onions, peppers — and mayonnaise. Though traditional recipes for dinakdakan call for pork brains, mayo works as a palatable replacement, and it warmly resonates like a side dish brought to a family picnic. Sticky chicken adobo is expectedly dark and bitey and comes served with quail egg and fried potatoes. Tangy souring agents tame the fat-forward funk of Kusina’s homestyle Filipino menu, which is lengthy.
No food seems more at home at a comedy show than halo-halo, the chaotic and sweetly layered dessert with ube, flan, macapuno coconut, fruit preserves, beans and a heavy base of condensed milk and crunchy shaved ice. There is something cartoonish about halo-halo and its audacious, perilous structure. The comedians themselves participate in the same high-wire act, navigating precariously through new jokes like a piece of flan teetering on a Filipino sundae.
“I have no idea why I started a free weekly comedy show. I’m a new dad who has a paying job,” Toledano laughs. Like any comedian, he’s got a self-effacing defense mechanism. Though, after a bit more prying, he reveals a more sentimental truth.
“I’m a Filipino guy who grew up in Pennsylvania. I didn’t have many Asian friends. So the show is really killing several birds with one stone — I’m in touch with a culture I was never close to. I’m seeing old friends. New comics. It’s exciting for me.”
For Toledano, “Motherland” is where he’s right at home.
"Motherland" comedy happens 9 p.m. Wednesdays at Kusina Filipina at 4157 Eagle Rock Blvd. The show is free reserve tickets at motherland-comedy.eventbrite.com.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.