By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Five years ago, Christian Esteban worked in the Philippines as the on-camera host of a popular travel and destination show for a major Filipino TV network.
His mother, Susan, called him from the family’s Pasadena home and implored Christian to return home. His father, the family patriarch — Arturo “Art” Esteban, an aerospace engineer recently retired from J.P.L. — was diagnosed with dementia and the family’s longstanding business, Chaaste Family Market, was struggling to survive.
The oldest of three brothers, Christian, now 38, returned to Pasadena and rallied his two younger siblings Abraham, 33, and Gabriel, 30, to assist at the store. Soon enough, the small Filipino market and restaurant corrected its course.
The experience proved useful over the past year of pandemic pivots. Operating hours were adjusted, and the dining area was cleared and narrowed to accommodate take out customers only.
Chaaste Family Market has occupied the corner store of a modest strip mall on Allen Avenue and Corson Street, since its opening in 1987. At the time, the mall represented a prominent beachhead for local business, in Pasadena’s small Filipino community. This included George’s Hot Grill, opened by another family member. It represented the first Filipino restaurant in Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley.
As Christian suggested, every Filipino family is an extended family and the Estebans were among the very first Filipino families to settle in Pasadena, following the end of World War II.
“My grandfather arrived here in 1949.” A former Filipino scout for the U.S. Army, Gregorio Esteban survived the notorious Bataan death march.
“He received the Purple Heart,” Christian said. “He was an agriculturalist. He knew what to eat to survive. We lived in a tropical area. We’re farmers.”
A family friend, Paul Ordinario, helped bring the rest of the family from the Philippines to Pasadena. His insurance agency is still next door to the market.
“They’re a unique generation,” Christian said. “They don’t talk about the racism, but it did exist.”
Originally, Susan Esteban intended to open the market elsewhere, as Christian explained.
“They had an influx of Filipinos in Eagle Rock,” Christian said. “Real estate was less expensive. My mom was supposed to open (the store) in Eagle Rock.”
Art Esteban insisted on Pasadena and the present location, where the city’s small-but-burgeoning Filipino community was firmly taking root.
Art served in the U.S. military before matriculating from Cal State LA and working in the aerospace industry, the last 22 years of which were spent at J.P.L. He died from complications of dementia in December.
“There was nothing he couldn’t do,” Christian said. “He was a jack-of-all-trades. He could do anything.”
Art was instrumental in preparing the store’s space in advance of opening the market. In the meantime, Susan was in the midst of a major career transition.
“My mom, prior to this, she was one of the first three Asian women employees at Warner Bros. Records,” Christian said.
Susan was the original chef for the “Turo Turo” steam table delicacies that anchor the restaurant portion of the business. Although the formats and inventories of Chaaste Family Market continue to evolve, half the space is devoted to a variety of items imported from the Philippines. The other half is devoted to freshly prepared food.
“Turo Turo” literally translates to “point point,” referring to the manner by which a guest indicates selected preferences from the array of dishes, served cafeteria style, from the steam table. It’s a common format in Filipino markets.
When the Esteban brothers transformed the family business’ fortunes five years ago, menu changes were discussed. However, ultimately Susan’s sensibility and instincts prevailed.
“We keep it traditional,” Christian said. “My mom is not doing fusion.”
These days, the youngest Esteban brother, Gabriel, claims the title of chef. Classically trained in continental cuisine and methods at culinary school in the Philippines, his move into the kitchen at the family market wasn’t intuitive.
At culinary school, Gabriel learned to cook European dishes. He was mentored by his mother in Filipino, home-style cooking.
“It’s in our blood,” Gabriel said. And mom hasn’t left the kitchen entirely.
“Gabriel is the chef, but my mom always has the final say,” Christian said. “My mom checks the food. She has to taste it.”
Lunchtime regulars still arrive at the steam table with the query, “Hey, what did mama cook today?”
Today? The options at the Turo Turo counter will vary, though staples like pancit noodles, chicken adobo, barbecued pork tocino, lechon pork belly and lumpia rolls are reliably available—if they’re not sold out.
The menu layout is displayed on a board, priced at large, medium and small portions as follows: meat ($8.99/$6.99/$5.75); vegetable ($6.75/$5.25/$4.25) and pancit, the fine, curling rice noodles ($5.25/$4.25/$3.25). There are typically a dozen options, half of them stalwarts and half rotating out. Fish dishes have been featured lately during Lent. Questions? Ask whichever friendly family member is serving at the counter.
Chaaste Family Market is also known for their sweets. Turon, or a banana fritter, is more of a thin, crisp fried egg roll wrapper encasing a thick banana custard. Here, they come in exotic flavors including very berry, cookies and cream and pumpkin pie. The newest flavor is Art’s Guava. The turon is priced at $1.75 and $1.95 a piece; there’s a minimum three-piece order. There’s also Halo Halo ($9), featuring shaved ice and ube ice cream.
By the way, the name of the market is an acronym of family names: Christian (CH); Arturo (A); Abraham (A); Susan (S); Torres (T, Susan’s maiden name) and Esteban (E). It is otherwise pronounced as and signifies the word “chaste” suggesting abstinent purity. A devout Catholic family, the Esteban brothers all attended St. Francis High School in Pasadena. The brothers were sent to the Philippines for their college and university educations, attending the best schools in Manila, on mom’s orders.
“She wanted us to experience our culture,” said Christian, who, like his brothers, earned a master’s degree.
The extended Esteban family continues to extend into the next generation. In September, Christian married Cayla Johnson, who’s fluent in Tagalog, having been raised in the Philippines. She met Christian at the Turo Turo counter at the store. The couple are expecting their first child in June.
Meanwhile, Abraham’s fianceé Ariel Shindledecker is mastering mom’s turon and flan recipes. Another extended family member — Taiomi Haser — assists Gabriel in the kitchen. There is a lovely, benign bustle of activity in the store, and everybody actually seems to be having fun.
“It’s always been family,” Christian said. “Now it’s immediate family. We’re getting intimate with the store. We’re trying to keep the culture alive. Food is the universal language of the Philippines. Food and dancing. Good vibes all around.”