Walk into JT Restaurant and the first thing you’ll notice is the aroma of Filipino food - home-style dishes lovingly and painstakingly prepared by the renowned Tess.
The sunlight filters through the front windows looking out to Mission Street as Tess finally takes a moment to sit down after the busy lunch rush to talk about her time in the South of Market. Originally called New Pilipinas when it was started in 1994, it took on the name JT Restaurant and Catering in 2010 when Tess took ownership of the establishment.
“J stands for Juan and T is for Tess – that’s why it’s called JT Restaurant and Catering. He’s the one that helped me fix it. He’s a big help to me,” Tess says, smiling fondly at her husband, Juan, as she discusses the challenges she faced in running the business and catering service. “But I’m the one that worked for it.”
A traditional turo-turo, JT Restaurant is one of the oldest Filipino businesses in the SoMa found in the historic Mint Mall.
“‘Turo turo’ is Tagalog – it means ‘to point’ with your finger. We do that in the Philippines - point to the food. Some of the Filipinos that were born here, they don’t know why it’s called a ‘turo turo restaurant’. Filipinos don’t say ‘Oh, I want that’ – sometimes they don’t know the name (of a dish). The food is laid out behind the counter in my restaurant so I’ll explain what a dish is called and what’s in it when someone points to it. That’s why it’s called ‘turo turo’,” Tess explains.
Over the years, Tess has witnessed how the SoMa and the Mint Mall community has changed as local Filipino business owners have moved away. She’s one of the only original entrepreneurs that still remains at the historic location. Mint Mall was once a bustling epicenter of Filipino business and culture, housing everything from the beloved Arkipalego Bookstore to the offices of the Pistahan Festival. Tess herself was the one who personally catered and provided food for the Pistahan dancers and volunteers until 2011.
“Before, Arkipalego was here. Manilatown was downstairs. And the Pistahan office used to be here, too. Luz De Leon, the first one who ran Pistahan, used to be here before she retired to the Philippines. There used to be someone who sold barongs, too. Now, not anymore. They closed their businesses. We’re one of the only original tenants left here, even though lots of Filipinos still live inside the Mint Mall,” Tess says.
Tess – affectionately called “Ate Tess” or “Mama Tess” by nearly everyone who walks through the door – is not only the incredible chef behind the traditional, home-cooked dishes but the very heart of the community. The appeal is not just the delicious food, but Tess herself – a friendly face and a space that feels like home from the moment you step through the door.
“Tess is so nice to everyone – that’s why people keep coming back,” says Ratika, who stops in after her voice lessons to have her favorite dish - beef stew and rice. “This is the community eating place. The food feels homemade and wholesome and then Tess is so friendly so even if I’ve had a bad day, I’m gonna feel good when I come here. Community leadership takes different forms and Tess is an example of that. Food is the way to bring people together, it’s a form of comfort.”
While JT Restaurant serves Filipino cuisine, it caters to a diverse audience: regulars who work at nearby businesses and stop in during the busy lunch hour, students from Dental Pacific who pop in after classes, and seniors who are looking for a savory meal that reminds them of home. Everyone seems to have a favorite, go-to dish from Tess’s ever-changing menu of classic Filipino dishes and desserts. Regardless of what’s on the menu for the day, the abundance of customers who walk through the door stay a little longer for Tess’s sage advice or a conversation about home, family, and life.
“Every time someone has a problem, they come here. They’ll say ‘You’re not only a restaurant, you’re Helen Vela’ – they always tell me that,” Tess says, referencing the Helen Vela novellas of the past whose advice and heart-to-heart conversations were a hit in the Philippines. Regardless of the time period, Tess’s advice - just like her cooking - stands the test of time.
“If they need advice, I’m here. I’m not perfect, but I’ll give you the real advice – the truth. I know we cannot stand alone – we need the help of others. But still, you need to have trust in yourself first. Trust in yourself that you can do it – that’s the best thing.”
For Tess, Undiscovered SF is a chance to share her cooking with the larger community - one that she’s been a part of for decades. She cooks not only because of her love and passion for Filipino food, but for the joy and excitement that she sees in the people who sit down at JT Restaurant.
“I want them to remember, ‘Oh, there’s an event like this!’,” Tess smiles when she talks about the premiere of Undiscovered on July 21st. “I want them to think there’s something special about the day that Undiscovered happens and that’s why they want to go there. That’s what I’m always thinking about, here at JT Restaurant – I want to do something that will stick in people’s minds and that’s why they want to keep coming back.”
Written by Cat Jimenez, Photos by Abby Asuncion