When chef Alvin Cailan’s then-employer unexpectedly shuttered on New Year's Day 2011, he left Portland, Oregon with the idea of doing "Michelin work," staging all the way down the West Coast until he reached his hometown of Los Angeles. But after a few months in fine-dining kitchens, Cailan felt the urge to start his own business, tackling the lofty goal of of bringing "good breakfast" to LA. "Breakfast doesn't have to be pancakes and syrup on a big scale," Cailan says, noting that for many Los Angelenos, the morning meal meant cruising through a McDonald's or Starbucks drive-thru before hitting the freeway. The result, his egg-focused food truck Eggslut, soon had guests lining up down the block for breakfast sandwiches and coddled eggs.
Earlier this year, Eggslut opened its hotly anticipated first brick-and-mortar location inside LA's open-air Grand Central Market, and Cailan marvels at the fans who brave two-hour lines for a sandwich. "I was thinking we were going to be doing 15 covers an hour," he laughs. "It's crazy." But while lines for Eggslut may not subside — Cailan says there are no immediate plans to expand the concept beyond its one location — the chef is looking to branch out in other ways, eyeing new ramen and "modern diner" concepts to break up the routine of cooking 480 breakfast sandwiches per day.
Eater recently chatted with Cailan about Eggslut Ramen rumors, his "proper" diner concept, and the insane response to the Grand Central Market. "I love what I do," Cailan says. "There's nothing better than that feeling when you finish serving people and everyone is happy... it makes me feel great."
Why open Eggslut in LA? A lot of people move from places like LA to Portland to open a food truck and you did it backwards.
It was crazy because I really wanted to eat good breakfasts. Portland's such a big breakfast place. You go to LA and there's nothing, because everyone is trying to beat traffic. Eating in your car is so huge it’s like, "Oh, I have to go get a McDonald's breakfast or something." I didn't want that. I worked at night, so I was like, "I want to eat breakfast. I want to sit down, eat something good and carry on with my day." They don't have that in LA, so for me, it was a no-brainer. I'm like, "With my culinary experience, obviously I'm not going to do a 15-course taster every night, but I can make a mean breakfast sandwich." So, I tried it.
Within three months of me parking there, I was able to pay for all my debt.
I sold all my belongings. I sold my car, which was a pretty nice car — it was an excessive SUV — and I had enough money for a six-month pop-up in a food truck. I knew, coming from Portland, that coffee was going to be the biggest thing. I teamed up with a boutique coffee shop in West Hollywood and within three months of me parking there, I was able to pay for all my debt. Then I was like, "Fuck a pop-up, let's just keep doing this." We did it for two-and-a-half years and then we teamed up with Handsome Coffee when they opened. We had a downtown market and we created a hysteria on the weekends at Handsome Coffee with the food truck in their place.
How did you end up in Grand Central market as your first brick-and-mortar location?
As soon as I was ready to open a brick and mortar, we were looking for places and then Umami Burger would get it, or these other places would get these prime locations that no one would have thought of before Handsome was in the arts district. We were SOL. I don't have millions of dollars to open restaurants. I think Grand Central Market found out that I was looking — they had us on their radar or something — and they offered us a space. It was a space no one wanted. It was no gas, all electricity. I'm like, "Dude, in France, everyone uses electrical. No one uses gas anymore. I'll take it."
I found out that it was the best spot there because you have neighbors, but you don't really share a stall with somebody else. It's just one place right on the street that's being really developed. Now, it's two-hour lines just to eat a breakfast sandwich, which isn't what we originally set out to do, but it's good.
I’ve heard you’re doing a ramen concept inside the market, as well.
Nothing is for certain yet. Everything that's been written about it is a little premature, but since I've opened Eggslut, I've sought comfort in ramen. Once you're doing 300, 400, 500 sandwiches every day, your life gets normal and you just keep doing the same thing. It's boring. I ended up meeting these dudes from Little Tokyo and they taught me how to do ramen. I've been fixated on ramen for the last year-and-a-half now.
Since I've opened Eggslut, I've sought comfort in ramen.
I'm actively looking for places to open a ramen place. I haven't come up with a name yet. It would be cool to call it Eggslut Ramen because I feel like no one does a ramen place where you can choose what kind of egg you want on top. Sometimes you can have an epic ramen meal, but the egg was too hard. Or you can have a decent broth, but then the egg was perfect because it was soft. Why can't you just pick it then? You want over hard, or a hard boiled, a five minute, a sous vide? Or how about when you were drunk in college and you threw a raw egg into your top ramen. Why can't you do that? It's going to be traditional as hell, but once we find that home that's what I want to focus on. We're dabbling with the idea of maybe reopening in the market. But I have a couple other projects that I'm working with that are a little bit more definite that ramen.
Anything you can elaborate on now?
I'm on the quest to make a proper burger, a proper roasted chicken, just taking a step back from the tamarind-rubbed chicken or the burger with habanero-bacon compote. How about really good bread, getting meat that's delicious, cheese that's delicious, and that's it? Just a simple burger that we all fell in love with when we were six years old — where can you get that? Even in this city it's hard to find because everyone's signature burger is so crazy. Let's get back to basics and realize why we love this stuff. I'm working on a concept [where] that's the idea: Make the perfect spaghetti bolognese for Sunday night, or a meatball, or make the best breakfast croissant and ham sandwich you've ever had, just simple.
If you do it right and the technique is correct, you can be wowed by [simplicity], like, "Who knew that flour, salt, pepper, butter, and buttermilk could make this thing so amazing?" I want to do the reverse of what's super-trendy and just do it where [chefs can] come eat and go, "Wow you did that right. That's how it should be done." That's my goal. That's my next project. I can't say yet where, but it's definitely in the downtown area.
So it's mostly a burger focused restaurant?
We're going to do breakfast, lunch, dinner. I'm going to have a coffee set-up there and hopefully a really good beer bottle selection. Breakfast, it'll be really quick sandwiches. We're going to be doing croissant ham-and-cheese and tartines and stuff like that, pastries. Lunch is going to be: BLT, burger, roast chicken, a steak salad. Dinner is going to be very American: burger, steak, french fries, chicken, pork chops. Stuff like that, but seasonal.
Would you be comfortable with calling it a "diner"?
I'd call it a new diner. We were really trying to act on our cravings. Being in this industry we already know the fluff involved with buzz words and stuff like that. I don't want it to be full of buzz words. I just want it to be burger, cheeseburger, roast chicken, that's it. You already know by the way we use our technique, the way we plate it: It's going to be on Instagram. They're going to look at it. People are going to be like, "Wow, that looks awesome." To me, that's step one. Then taste it: "Wow, that's great. I'm coming back." That's all I care about because I want to cook for my city. I want them to taste what I want to do: I eat everything, but I want it to be done properly. That's what I've been focused on as well with ramen. I'll work on this new menu and we're really, really close to a lease. We're working on that situation and then ramen at night. Three different projects, and there's no rush, because Eggslut's doing so well.
What about plans to expand Eggslut? Would you open more of those, either in LA or elsewhere?
Eggslut in itself, I love it to death, but I like it where it's at. I'm not a strong believer in multiple locations, but if there's a way I can control the prep and be able to make sure that the food tastes the same, I'll do it. If not, I'd rather stay creative with different projects and work with better chefs. Again, everything that we're doing is working with chefs that are great at what they do, like ramen or this thing with doing proper food. I want to team up with chefs who have been in the game for a really long time, who could never get past that sous chef level, and then work with them and help them create, push their potential.
I'm not a strong believer in multiple locations.
To me, the food tastes better that way, rather than having one executive chef and five, six different concepts: That doesn't make sense. We're working on that, too. I'm working on the whole system of being a chef. That's why I want Eggslut to be that one place. It's really my test ground on how to do things with other restaurants. At Eggslut we're hiring dishwashers and we're training them to become cooks. We're training those cooks to become chefs and those chefs to become business partners eventually.
Having your first brick-and-mortar in this sort of non-conventional market space, what are some of the things you learned?
We ultimately thought that it was just going to be the most affordable thing, but we partnered up with them. It's not like we were just paying a flat rate every month. We're really trying to push for the market to be greater. I'm happy there. We thought it would be something smaller than it is now: I was thinking we were going to be doing 15 covers an hour. The other day we pretty much did a sandwich per minute of service and we're an eight hour service. Me and my cousin, who's helping me out at the Grand Central location, we looked at each other like, "Yeah, what the hell?" It's crazy.
We've become Disneyland and I'm Space Mountain.
I don't have a PR firm or anything like that, but I think the market does. Their PR team's really pushing the market as a whole. We've become Disneyland and I'm Space Mountain. Wexler's Deli is like the Star Wars ride.
Is that a good change though? Is it good to be Disneyland?
To be honest, obviously I love it because it helps me do other things. To me, I love it, but it's definitely complicated my menu because I can't do anything intricate — I can't do anything really composed because we need to space to prep chipotle ketchup. It's a double-edged sword: You become a successful business, but also then you can't have the culinary freedom to do what you want because the rest of your time is prepping for your regular menu.
It's another reason why I do ramen at night. I just constantly want to stay creative with food because I don't want to ever get tired of it. I want to be the dude who just loves food and made a life off of it. I can't get tired of what I love. That's what I'm scared of the most. That's why ramen — and even just burgers — I fixated. It's my life.