Having lived in L.A. since high school, Nino Jefferson Lim speaks fluent English and feels quite at home here. But his roots are never far away. "My day is not complete without a dish of rice," said the USC graduate.

Figuring that other Filipinos feel as he does, Lim is about to kick off a bold experiment a 50,000-square-foot retail center with the first full-service supermarket geared specifically to the Filipino community.

"We're not just a supermarket," said Lim, president of Island Pacific Supermarket, which will open in March in Panorama City. "We're doing this because we want to create a center to preserve the Filipino heritage."

Filipinos outnumber all other Asian minorities in L.A., except Chinese Americans. But unlike those other ethnic groups, the Filipino community never has had a commercial center. An earlier attempt near downtown L.A. failed back in the '80s.

But things may be changing.

"Filipinos have made an effort to recapture elements of the culture," said Brad Bagasao, vice president of Global Knowledge Services, a consulting firm, who is Filipino-American.

"I think the population growth combined with (an emerging realization) that we need to support our own businesses can sustain a large enterprise," he said.

At first, Lim had considered leasing just half the 50,000-square-foot space, which used to be a Latino supermarket and before that a Ralphs grocery. But he settled on renovating the property to accommodate a 26,000-square-foot store and a cluster of shops, with the hope of attracting shoppers, not just from the local Panorama City area but from all over the San Fernando Valley.

"It's different when you make a center," said Lim. "It becomes a place to go."

The Kababayan Center (the name means "countryman" in Tagalog) is an indoor shopping mall with marble floors, ceilings painted to look like sky, and a statue of King Lapu Lapu, the Filipino ruler believed to have killed Ferdinand Magellan, the explorer who opened the country to Spanish rule.

Its centerpiece, the 27,000-square-foot Island Pacific Supermarket, will be anchored by Goldilocks Bake Shop and Restaurant and video and music retailer Karioke Melody. Stalls along the entranceway to the supermarket will house more Filipino businesses, including a beauty shop, cellular phone center and gift shop.

The venture is the latest in a string of businesses Lim's family has operated in the United States since 1984. The parent company, Universal Food Corp., has supplied groceries, fish and meats to other Asian retailers. Believing the Filipino-American community has grown large enough to support such a chain, Lim convinced his father to move into the supermarket business after he graduated from USC with a degree in accounting.

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