In a soaring downtown loft space next to the derelict Cecil Hotel, Ralph Hsiao and Andrew Marco pivot around a small open kitchen behind a highly shellacked handmade bar, encircled by friends and strangers.
Everyone has come together for the night at RCTNGL, the name these two self-taught chefs gave to their recurring dinner parties.
High on kinetic energy, they’re joking with old UC Irvine schoolmates while plating the first course in a porky omakase they’re preparing in honor of the Year of the Pig.
The feast is called Tsino, the Tagalog word for Chinese. The dish: a Popeye’s-inspired biscuit served aside a hunk of honeycomb and black-tea-dusted lardo cured with five-spice.
The two friends, who bonded over hip-hop and skateboarding after meeting in college, first began organizing BYOB group meals two years ago to stay in touch with friends.
Today, Marco, raised in a Filipino family in Diamond Bar, and Hsiao, from a Taiwanese family in Torrance, have both left their jobs to explore what they call “Asian-inspired, Los Angeles-influenced” food in an ongoing series of communal dinners.
“Both of us grew up eating Chinese food, Mexican food, Basque food,” Hsiao says, outlining his role as general manager to Marco’s executive chef. “All of that finds itself in the DNA of RCTNGL, though we’re more focused on the Filipino aspect.”
The seven-course menu for the Tsino dinners, held over two weekends in March, illustrated this cross-cultural melding.
After the biscuits came a take on the Filipino wonton soup pancit molo made with Szechuan dumplings and chile oil in a broth of chicken binakol consommé.
Sinuglaw followed, a mix of fermented-apple-marinated and grilled pork jowl and tuna ceviche on a forbidden rice tostada.
Then there was a bowl of noodles made of braised pork skin and pickled celtuce topped with amaranth, seared scallop and a ginger, garlic and scallion sauce.
After ginataan, a coconut dessert with brown butter-and-black sesame-filled tang yuan rice balls, a surprise round of smashburgers concluded the meal.
“In the beginning, we hated the term ‘fusion food,’” Hsiao says. “I don’t want cheeseburger wantons. But over time, we’ve come to terms that it is fusion food. We want to reframe that word because we can’t avoid it.”
“To us, fusion food is the new American,” he continued. “Who’s to say our American experience is not as authentic as an American person’s from the South? We’re sharing the culmination of everything we’ve experienced and that we define as American.”
RCTNGL follows a sporadic schedule, announcing dinner dates online once concepts are honed. For their next series, they’re staying mostly mum, teasing a culinary narrative that explores memory and “growing up.”
The two chefs also regularly offer kamayans, family-style Filipino feasts eaten with the hands over a banana leaf-lined table that, Marco notes, make it difficult for people to hold their phones.
It’s this spirit of connecting people over shared experiences that gave RCTNGL its start; the name itself derived from a common table shape.
“A lot happens over the table,” Hsaio explains. “To us, the table symbolizes community and bringing people together.”