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Finally, the Bay Area’s Filipino Food Scene Takes a Star Turn

It’s a long-overdue breakout.

SLIDESHOW

At Pinoy Heritage’s kamayan pop-up, guests eat the communal meal with their hands.

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Lechon kawali and two varieties of lumpia.

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Pancit sotanghon.

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The Golden State of Mind cocktail (mezcal, pandan, passionfruit).

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A crowd of happy diners at Oakland’s FOB Kitchen, which was slated to open in late September.

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Pork sisig. (6 of 8)

Ukoy.

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The Rickey Henderson cocktail (rum, Midori, blue curaçao, pineapple, lime), all served at Likha’s pop-up at the Emeryville sports bar Hometown Heroes.

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On a Saturday night in SoMa, about 40 diners sat down at a long table lined with banana leaves and piled high with delicacies—slices of crackly-skinned pork belly, whole fried petrale sole, tangy sinigang broth, shrimp glazed with banana ketchup, and as many mounds of white rice as there were paying guests. No utensils were provided.

The kamayan feast, a communal meal eaten with one’s hands, is a cherished Filipino tradition. And the SoMa gathering was one of several Pinoy Heritage pop-ups hosted around the city each month by chef Francis Ang, who started the series last year. Its popularity is a sign of a cuisine whose prestige is on the rise. Similar scenes are playing out across the Bay Area: Aileen Suzara, who greets me at her Berkeley apartment on a recent visit with a basket of ukoy, a kind of fritter that she’s fashioned out of corn, leeks, and purple sweet potatoes, operated her vegetable-centric pop-up Sariwa inside a UC Berkeley dining hall for a month this past spring. On the front patio of the Emeryville sports bar Hometown Heroes, clusters of young, fashionable Filipino Americans hunker over sizzling platters of pork sisig courtesy of Likha, the Filipino pop-up that mans the kitchen.

“Nowadays, there are a lot of Filipino chefs who are solidly trained,” says Jan Dela Paz, Likha’s co-chef, who previously cooked at Oakland’s Ramen Shop and the Napa fine-dining institution La Toque. “They’re realizing, why am I going to cook other kinds of cuisines when I can shine and create something that’s Filipino?”

Filipino food has been due for its come-up for the better part of a decade now, with trend pieces appearing every couple of years in the New York Times or the Washington Post proclaiming it “the next big thing,” the next great global cuisine to go mainstream. Here in the Bay Area, we’ve been hearing about it since the late-aughts heyday of places such as Poleng Lounge, with its hip-hop swagger and its menu of supercharged Filipino classics. But somehow the movement never quite gained critical mass.

Now, finally, it feels like the moment has arrived, both in the Bay Area and beyond. In Washington, D.C., Bad Saint ranked second on Bon Appétit’s 2016 list of the nation’s best new restaurants. Lasa and Rice Bar are two of the buzziest restaurants in L.A. In New York, a handful of places, like Purple Yam and Maharlika, have been holding it down for years. Locally, Suzara was recently written up in Bon Appétit, and Ang was named one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rising Star Chefs this year. Beyond the bevy of instant-hit spots, this fall will also mark Mission district pop-up FOB Kitchen’s leap to full-service brick-and-mortardom, in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. The kitchen at 7th West, the cavernous new West Oakland bar, now serves as home base for chef Dennis Villafranca, the lechon-slinging proprietor of the food truck Jeepney Guy. And Undiscovered SF, a massive monthly Filipino night market, is entering its second year—part of the SOMA Pilipinas cultural district’s efforts to encourage Filipino-owned restaurants and retail shops in a wide swath of SoMa.


With a population
of more than 450,000 Filipino Americans, the Bay Area has never exactly suffered from a lack of Filipino food options, especially in places like Hayward and Daly City. But the new generation of Filipino American chefs are different—in part, 7th West co-owner Kevin Pelgone says, because they don’t want to open the kind of place where only Filipinos will feel comfortable eating. At the same time, they’re also embracing their Filipino-ness and their culture’s traditional recipes, including those that highlight ingredients—such as bagoong, a salty, pungent shrimp paste—that used to be considered too challenging for the Western palate.

In short, they’re creating what wife-and-wife FOB Kitchen co-owners Brandi and Janice Dulce call “modern Filipino cooking.” For FOB Kitchen, that mostly means using higher-quality meats and produce and plating dishes more attractively. Janice Dulce, the chef, makes longanisa sausages and a take on Spam in-house—tasks, she says, that the home cooks of her aunties’ and grandmothers’ generations would have been unlikely to take on.

Villafranca of 7th West is best known for his crisp-skinned pork belly lechon, but he has also been tinkering with a vegan sisig and Filipino American barbecue: dishes such as his brisket Tagalog, which features American-style smoked brisket in a calamansi-spiked caramelized-onion sauce. For Pinoy Heritage’s Ang, the reconnection with Filipino cuisine started in 2014 when, as the pastry chef at Fifth Floor, he hosted a fundraiser to benefit the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. It was the first Filipino meal he had ever served in a restaurant setting, and it propelled him and his wife, Dian, to start their new business, for which they spend several weeks each year doing culinary research in the Philippines. The goal, he says, is to further evolve a cuisine that already contains a multitude of influences: Chinese, Spanish, Malay, and more. Diners are consistently surprised, he says, by the eight-course seasonal tasting menu he serves at his ­Saturday-night pop-up, which doesn’t fit their fatty, everything-is-brown image of Filipino food—they’re surprised even by small tweaks, such as a dipping sauce thickened with agar and piped onto lumpia ahead of time. “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realize Filipino food could look like this, could taste like this.’”

For their residency at Hometown Heroes, Likha chefs Dela Paz and Bobby Punla, who worked together at Ramen Shop, apply a delicate touch to dishes like pork sisig, which comes out, as per tradition, on a sizzling platter—except with a housemade lemon mayonnaise folded in with the meat and a sous-vide egg on top. They serve a spectacular version of the raw-fish dish kinilaw in which chunks of yellowtail are lightly cured in coconut vinegar and citrus, then tossed with slices of Asian pear. “If we’re going to spend that much money on a protein or a fish, we just want that protein or fish to shine,” Punla says. “We don’t want it to taste like a pickle.”

Sariwa’s Suzara came to cooking from a previous career in the public health sector, where she would hear doctors write off Filipino food as inherently unhealthy. In response, she enrolled in the food incubator program La Cocina, with a focus on the central role of vegetables in traditional Filipino cooking. “There’s sometimes this devaluing—‘Oh, vegetables are poor people’s food,’” she says. “If you make it, you want to eat the sirloin. You’re not going to eat the mung bean.” During her stint in the Cal dining hall, she served a vegetarian version of the oxtail stew known as kare-kare in which Hodo Soy yuba mimicked the falling-apart texture of the oxtails.

Suzara, for her part, celebrates the heightened visibility and the excitement around the new wave of restaurants and pop-ups. But she also questions the notion that the Filipino American food community has only just arrived—as though the way wasn’t paved by generations of under-recognized chefs. “Sometimes I’ve heard a little bit of shame. ‘Oh, the mom-and-pop turo turo—point point—spots, they made the food look ugly.’ I’m like, damn. They were trying to be here,” she says. “I personally always just want to say thank you a hundred times to the past.”


For all the buzz
surrounding the new wave of Filipino chefs, those in the game envision an even brighter future. Dela Paz and Punla say they eventually want to move into a space of their own so they can build a kitchen with a wood-fire grill and a proper wok station. They want to hire a pastry chef. They want to make their own bagoong.

Suzara, on the other hand, is still looking for a permanent home for her pop-up but says that her ideal location isn’t necessarily a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. Instead, she’d love to open Sariwa in a space attached to a community center or a health clinic. “I love feeding families,” she says. “I love feeding people who are just hella tired.”

Meanwhile, Pinoy Heritage’s Ang says that the restaurant he’d like to open in the near future will aim to be something akin to a Filipino version of Liholiho Yacht Club, Ravi Kapur’s rollicking ode to Hawaii, with its chill vibe and gorgeous, shareable dishes. It won’t necessarily be fine dining, Ang explains. “It’s the food that people want to eat.”

If the kamayan feast is any indication, it will be a delicious restaurant indeed—and maybe just as important, one that’s fun and welcoming. When you’re eating with your hands, you can’t really put on airs—not when you’re reaching across the table to snag the last slice of pork belly or to offer an enthusiastic endorsement of the grilled peach. Not when your mound of rice has turned into a soupy mess and your hands will smell, gloriously, of calamansi and garlic and fish sauce for days.

FOB Kitchen 5179 Telegraph Ave. (at 51st St.), Oakland, 510-817-4169
Likha at Hometown Heroes, 4000 Adeline St. (at 40th St.), Emeryville, 510-250-9311
The West, 7th West 1255 7th St. (at Union St.), Oakland, 510-250-9832

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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