Khristian Rabul displays a tray of pandesal at Ellis Creamery, located at the back of a National gas station in Tracy. (Alan Chazaro)
ou wouldn’t guess it, but there is something magical about the otherwise bland National gas station on W. Grant Line Rd. in Tracy. On first appearance, it seems like any ordinary stop point in U.S. suburbia: People pull up in a hurry, fill up on petro, then hop back into their whips and speed off onto a multi-lane road on their way to whatever American Dream they are chasing.
But between a Black Bear Diner and RV Center, right along Interstate 205, hides a clandestine gem exploding with Pinoy favorites. Here, at Ellis Creamery, Khristian Rabut experiments with distinctly Filipino ingredients to perfect his ice cream recipes while his wife Marie provides a full lineup of Filipino baked goods.
The concept originally began in 2020, when Marie—who works full-time in healthcare—started a home-based business called Marie’s Kitchen as a way to explore her passion for baking. At the time, she wanted to supplement her income and provide a creative outlet. After gaining local recognition, she expanded her business and brought in her husband, Khristian, who purchased the brick-and-mortar gas station location in 2021, taking over the already existing Ellis Creamery. They also hired Khristian’s cousin, Carl Ongwico, to serve as the business's in-house "ice cream expert."
Together, the family is bringing some of the hottest (and coldest) treats from the Philippine islands to Northern California.
“We went back to food we knew in the Philippines,” Khristian says. “We tried to copy the way we remember eating in the Philippines. It gave us something to focus on during the pandemic, besides our day jobs.”
Khristian first immigrated to San Jose from Lucena, a territory in the Quezon province located south of Manila. He arrived in Silicon Valley in 2007 with a work visa as part of the tech industry’s massive influx of talent from around the globe. Initially, he worked as a consultant trainer with companies like PG&E, Cypress and Infineon.
Here in California, he met Marie—also from Lucena—and the couple returned to their hometown to marry in 2009. When they moved back to San Jose, they realized the cost of living was steeper than they could afford, and with their first child on the way, they made the decision to move an hour east to the commuter city of Tracy in 2014. It’s a migratory trend that still continues today, nearly a decade later.
“[Tracy] is diverse. I’d guess there’s as many Latinos and Asians here as in the Bay,” Khristian says. “People are still moving in. We are one of the oldest, first residents in our area. Everyone on our street is new, all people who moved from the Bay. And most of them commute for work to the Bay.”
It’s a pattern that has created a cultural tapestry in Tracy where a small, family-owned operation like Ellis Creamery can thrive—despite being hidden inside an otherwise unremarkable gas station along a strip-mall lined road.
The convenience store at this particular National Petroleum location looks just like the ones you can find at any local gas station. Except, all the way in the back corner, there’s a full-blown bakery and ice cream counter where you can fill up on another kind of fuel: sugar. It’s an unexpected but deliciously welcome surprise.
Ellis Creamery isn’t where you go to get a scoop of vanilla or chocolate chip ice cream, though they serve that too. Instead, it’s where you go when you’re in need of tropically-tinted, Pacific-inspired flavors. You might opt for a refreshing scoop of “Kalamansi sherbet”—an “Asian lime” flavor, as Khristian describes it, with enough tang, zip and acid to balance the sugary goodness you’re sure to consume during your visit.
Khristian notes how certain flavors like pistachio are popular, particularly among South Asian customers, he says. Other customers may be seeking specialty flavors, like “Ube Cookies and Cream”—a sundae-like original invention which includes a scoop of ube ice cream piled on top of homemade, Oreo-laced cookies and cream.
“Nothing goes to waste in the Philippines,” Khristian tells me during my visit. “We like to mix things together. By adding something familiar like Oreos or bananas to ube, it not only becomes familiar to more people, but it keeps us from wasting any of our products.”
The concept of recycling what’s left over to enhance existing flavors is fully apparent in their version of halo-halo (Tagalog for “mixed”), the unofficial national dessert of the Philippines. The treat includes the usual shaved ice, ube ice cream, sweet kidney beans, coconut jelly and condensed milk—but, at Ellis Creamery, it also comes topped with crushed meringue, an ingredient that’s used in their other products: Filipino cakes and cookies such as Sans Rivals and Silvanas.
“Having the bakery is a business strategy,” Marie explains. “Ice cream is a seasonal business. We have to be strategic about how we sell during winter. If you look at most Filipino bakeries or ice cream shops, you might get some cookies and brownies, or ice cream. But here we offer more, we offer it all. And we’re using brands and flavors that we used to eat in the Philippines for authenticity.”
Marie heads the full-fledged baking side of the operation, coming up with recipes in the little bit of free time she has when she isn’t working her full-time role in nursing. Some of her favorites include the Sans Rival (a meringue cake with butter cream filling and crushed nuts such as pistachios covering the outer layer) and ensaymada (a Filipino-style sweet bread that begins as a butter bun brioche roll and ends as a decoratively covered dessert featuring some combination of ube buttercream, parmesan cheese, green tea frosting or dulce de leche).
The bakery does custom orders for large private events, and is known for its creative mix of cakes, savory items like pandesal and, starting this fall, meat-filled empanadas.
“For me, personally, I wanted to fulfill a family dream,” Khristian says. “Marie’s dream was always to own a shop—a pastry shop, to be known as a good baker. My goal was to fulfill that dream. We’re fortunate to have a knack for food and to be able to serve others our passion.”
During my time in the kitchen, I was introduced to more Filipino flavors and traditions than I’ve ever known. It felt like I was running a food marathon around the Pacific islands—with Khristian leading the way. Salty breads, crunchy rolls, savory fillings, sweet bites, cold spoonfuls. But it may have been the Silvanas that most left their mark on my taste buds.
The cake-like cookies are layered and crispy—covered in smashed nuts on the exterior—yet fluffy and chewy inside, creating a heavenly balance of hard and soft, easy and resistant, sweet and salty.
Also not lacking in size or flavor are the ensaymadas—a veritable overload of Filipino indulgence packed into a cupcake-sized goodie. The sheer amount of customizable ingredients and toppings alone are worth the drive to this hard-to-spot business. But I assure you, it’s there. And once you’ve gone, you’ll wish every gas station had an Ellis Creamery.
For many Bay Area residents, it’s hard to find the time (and gas funds, ironically) to make the drive over to a gas station in Tracy. Unfortunately, a business like Ellis Creamery doesn’t receive the same amount of attention or support as their hustle merits. The lack of foot traffic is a major hindrance.
But Ellis Creamery is ready to enter its second year of operation, and with that, they are ready to grow. In the meantime, the business is hitting up markets and events all over the Bay, from Daly City to Vallejo.
“In Tracy, we’re like a hidden secret,” Khristian says. “Most of our customers here are Asian. But when we do events in the Bay Area, we sell out fast, and many of our customers are diverse. For some of them, it’s their first time trying ube and we also get to introduce them to Filipino pastries.”
Though it isn’t yet official, they are currently in the process of filing the paperwork for a potential location in downtown San Jose. If all goes as planned, the new venue would be central to a large base of new clientele, particularly students at San Jose State University. It would give Ellis Creamery a foothold in Silicon Valley—the place where it all started for this Filipino couple with a sweet tooth.
Ellis Creamery is located inside the National gas station at 2420 W. Grant Line Rd., Tracy. It is open Tuesday–Saturday from 9am to 7 pm, and Sunday from noon to 5pm.