As Wanderlust Creamery has discovered, a love for Filipino flavors can definitely go the distance. Since the onset of the pandemic, the Los Angeles ice cream chain has seen flavors like their bibingka and brazo de mercedes find their way into homes across the U.S. “It was surprising to see how many of our followers were so far from the West Coast,” says Wanderlust’s co-founder Adrienne Borlongan, estimating 55,000 pints shipped since April when they began selling nationwide. From as far down as Florida up eastbound through Connecticut, customers have found a cool escape through the Filipino desserts Wanderlust has turned into frozen delights — more so in lockdown.
“The flavors reminded me of my childhood, growing up and eating these wonderful desserts,” says Mafel Lopez, a Dallas-based data analyst who recently ordered Wanderlust’s Pilipino Pint Pack — a set of six pints including her favorite sapin sapin. She would have added Food for the Gods if there weren’t a cap of seven on the number of pints one could order. “Now that I’m on my own in Texas, where cooking from my mom, Lola, and titas are too far away, having Filipino food is even more special.”
When Borlongan opened Wanderlust in 2015, a flavor as familiar to her as ube was the furthest from her mind. With a diploma in food science and a penchant for travel, ice cream for the first-generation Filipino-American was about departing from what’s expected.
“Many people were like, ‘How come you don’t make ube, hello? That’s so obvious!’” Borlongan says of customer demand in their second year. Instead, she looked everywhere else for inspiration. A hike through an Irish national forest led to a flavor of elderflower and wild berries. Another, infused fig leaves, sparked after a fish dinner in Croatia. A pint of egg coffee was a passport stamp to Vietnam; a cactus sorbet, to Mexico. But with its rising ubiquity in the U.S., from violet-hued horchata in San Francisco to pop-tarts in Pasadena, ube felt too much like a cop-out. Not to mention that her late grandfather, a food chemist for Magnolia, worked on the very pillars of Pinoy ice cream, classic ube included. What could she possibly contribute?
Thinking of a tourist-free version of ube, one less burdened by the buzz Filipino cuisine was getting in the U.S., Borlongan found a way to tell her own story through the pervasive flavor. She added malted milk, a tribute to the Chocolate Malted Crunch of her childhood. As a kid, she ordered it when visiting her older brother at his job scooping ice cream at Thrifty, a landmark of California youth. “The malt gives this wheaty flavor, which makes it taste like ube cake,” she says of Wanderlust’s Ube Malted Crunch. “As soon as we put that on the menu, it became a hit. People were discovering us just because of that.”
Creating ice cream off the beaten palate has paid off for Borlongan and her partner JP Lopez. Within their opening week, Lopez saw enough potential in the business to quit a career in law and devote his days to steering operations and expansion.
Today, Wanderlust has six locations across L.A., from Fairfax to suburban Tarzana, the first location they opened and less than 10 minutes from the couple’s home in the San Fernando Valley. Yet no matter how far their flavors have traveled, there was no shaking cravings that are closer to home.
Borlongan has found other ways to express Filipino identity truer to how she experiences it. Wanderlust’s Kapampangan Halo-Halo winks at all the Filipino-Americans who grew up wishing there were less beans and more milk in the dessert. There’s also an ode to chocolate via an Abuelita Malted Crunch. Borlongan remembers pleading for hot cocoa as a kid, in powder form a la Swiss Miss. “That’s not hot chocolate,” her mom would say, preparing instead the closest thing to native tsokolate she could get — Abuelita, a brand of tablet-style chocolate sold at Mexican bodegas.
Unlike in their first year, when they labeled a latik flavor “Coconut Beurre Noisette,” Wanderlust no longer bothers dressing native flavors in European frippery. They’ve since offered a straightforward tour through some homegrown staples, from sans rival to a pandan tres leches that suggests the Porto’s cakes reminiscent of Filipino-American family gatherings. “And we train our staff to pronounce flavors the correct way,” says Borlongan. “Five years ago, that wouldn’t fly. Sapin sapin would probably be called, uh, ‘Filipino Neapolitan.’”
“When you’ve attracted a certain segment of people, word’s gonna spread,” says Foodbeast managing editor Reach Guinto of the Filipino market the ice cream chain has captivated, himself included. After Wanderlust released limited edition flavors for Filipino-American History Month in 2018, Guinto’s pride in their flavors became even more personal. Sentimental for the candy he ate as a kid before moving to California with his family in the ‘90s, he suggested Borlongan make a White Rabbit flavor. A few months later, the flavor debuted packing gobs of the iconic Chinese milk candy in each scoop. The flavor went viral. A competitor even bought out nearby wholesalers of White Rabbit, while Asian ice cream chains began releasing their own versions.
“The Filipino flavors aren’t the only reason for their success,” says Guinto. “If you go on their Instagram, the photos are vibrant, magazine-worthy, and they look fucking yummy! Also, people are now more curious —‘What’s sapin sapin?’ That’s a great chance at getting your own voice and story behind your food.”
On Wanderlust’s Instagram, a photo of a parol formed from pandan-flavored cones or of fruit salad ice cream in an old plastic container (its name scribbled on the lid with a marker, as your tita would do), receives the sort of mania due to Pinoy celebrities. Many Filipino-Americans announce their tribal devotion to a limited edition flavor, demanding its return (“Bring back biko!”). Some like Evangelina Woo, a Chinese-American lawyer in San Diego, gush about the “ube she’s loved since she was a kid.” Others, commenting on an Armenian-inspired flavor of chorek and apricot jam, thank Wanderlust for “sharing our culture along with other beautiful creatures and nations.”
It was never part of Wanderlust’s itinerary but translating travel into ice cream has widened its reach, especially to immigrant communities homesick and hungry for a little nostalgia. Their Asian Jet Set Pint Pack, including one of their first flavors — a Thai-inspired sticky rice and mango, remains a bestseller. A Lunar New Year pack offering an Oolong Pineapple Tart, a Taiwanese favorite, sold out on its first day. Finding that 50% of their online orders were from repeat customers, Wanderlust began offering subscriptions. The “Passport Program” ships four new flavors a month.
As L.A. stews in lockdown, any travel plans for Lopez and Borlongan are grounded for now. Their ice cream can travel, however. Takeaway keeps the pints moving. And if it weren’t for the pandemic nudging them toward nationwide shipping, they wouldn’t have discovered how much further they could take their business. As much as the country’s production of carbon dioxide will allow, at least. CO2 is a component of dry ice, which is crucial in keeping their ice cream frigid while in transit. Because of vaccine distribution in December, their access to the cooling agent was limited drastically. “Our dry ice supplier would give us quotas on exactly how much they could actually supply, which was about 40% less than normal,” says Borlongan. “We just had to take the hit to our sales.”
Still, with many restaurants closed — some, like Filipino food darling Ma’am Sir, for good — Wanderlust is still taking flight.
“We thought that our online store would replace our in-store sales regionally but it actually grew our business regionally as well as nationally,” says Lopez, who is grateful all locations of Wanderlust have stayed open with all staff still onboard. He now sees store expansion across the US as a possibility, their 600-square-foot commissary in Tarzana persevering. If anything, their online fulfillment team — assembled from staff who handled catering and events previously — would have to keep up with volume. With newborn twins and a toddler to raise, Borlongan and Lopez would have to as well.
Of course, widening their reach worldwide would be on-brand, but so is achieving greater and more meaningful visibility. “The longer we’re in business, the more our brand takes shape. I really like how it’s highlighting different ethnicities, cultures. It gives people a spotlight.”
Ice cream as an unlikely tour guide? Few would complain. By offering a menu that changes monthly, Borlongan is only eager to keep being a Fodor’s to frozen delights, especially when detours into Asian ingredients lead to discovering what makes her heritage delicious. “I really want to try carabao milk,” she says, curious about how it compares to California’s buffalo milk. “I don’t know, I would probably fall in love with [Philippine] flavors and be disappointed that they can’t be exported here. That’s the story of my life with Wanderlust.”