JT Restaurant: Feeding the Community

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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

Foodmarky enriquez
littleHONEYvee: For Love of Art and Filipino Pride

Started as a daily blog with doodles and captions to reflect her day-to-day life, littleHONEYvee has been constantly evolving since its start in 2011. Mom-trepreneur Vee Caragay is the enigmatic force behind the apparel and stationery business that aims to pass down and preserve Filipino childhood traditions.

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Originally from San Diego, Vee moved here ten years ago and has been living and creating all around the Bay Area ever since. Regardless of where she’s lived, Vee has been involved in Filipino and FilAm community organizations. Her work in the community is something that has shaped her designs and artwork.

“I've been working with and been involved with the Filipino community ever since I was in high school. I’ve always known that my work with littleHONEYvee was always cultural work, too. So whenever I can implement my culture into any designs, I will.”

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Vee is the one-woman force designing, screen-printing, and selling the eye-catching tee shirts with phrases like “Kain Na!”,  “Close Open”, and “Gigil” that resonate deeply with a Filipino upbringing. Vee’s designs are more than just her passion – they blend her love for art with an inherent pride for her Pinay roots and a desire to share Filipino culture with the world.

“There are so many customers that come to my booth and tell me, "I thought that was just something my lola and I did!” or "I thought that was just my family thing!" But little do they know that these phrases are a whole cultural thing. To know that my designs can connect people with the larger culture and be that bridge for them is awesome! I feel like my designs are gonna open up some doors for FilAm parents, especially second generation, third generation, and millennial parents, and give them the opportunity to pass down these traditions or "Filipino baby tricks", you know?” Vee’s energy and excitement are palpable as she laughs.

Each of Vee’s designs originates from her own memories of being raised by her lola who passed on the “Filipino baby tricks” that Vee hopes to share with her diverse audience. Being able to connect with her audience and to see their reactions to a familiar phrase from childhood is one of the biggest rewards that Vee gets from littleHONEYvee. It’s an opportunity to not only strengthen her own roots and culture, but to see these traditions take on a new life as they encounter new cultures and generations.

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“Giving people a little exposure to the culture or just giving them something to connect to with other Filipinos and bond over - it's awesome. It's dope to have them share their stories with me. Even with customers who are not of Filipino descent that make purchases, because they not only like the art and design, but appreciate the culture. So it's also bringing other cultures together which is cool.”

Her design style is fun and upbeat – much like Vee, herself. She emphasizes the importance of her audience’s feedback on her products and upcoming designs, showing that it’s the connection with her customers that she values the most. Armed with a sketchbook full of ideas, Vee is throwing herself head-first into the recent evolution of littleHONEYvee’s apparel line. One of her best-sellers, the “Beautiful Eyes” tee for kids, is a throwback to the Filipino practice of telling a child “beautiful eyes” to get them to batt their eyelashes and foster a sense of self-love in them from a young age.

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“It's kind of mind blowing because the smallest thing like the saying "Beautiful Eyes" - it's something that you grow up with and you take with you when you become a parent. It’s important for me to do this so I can give an outlet to these millennial/FilAm parents who might not have that access to their culture to teach their kids these traditions. As miniscule as it seems, it’s still a big thing because it’s a part of our Filipino culture and the traditional Filipino upbringing.”

For Vee, her work within the different Filipinx and FilAm communities throughout California have opened her eyes to the need for a stronger effort to not only preserve and pass on Filipino culture, but to see it thrive and grow. That’s why she loves Undiscovered SF – it’s a chance to regularly showcase her own work, and to see the new talent and goods that are emerging from the community. Make sure to catch littleHONEYvee’s new designs at Undiscovered SF on July 21st!

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“That's why it's important for me to do it - for my son. To do this work - both my designs and the community work - to expose him to the culture because I feel like it's fading away. My grandma helped raise me so I know these traditions because of that upbringing. That’s what my designs reflect - showing people that this is what connects us as Filipinos and to be raised as a Filipino.”

 

Written by Cat Jimenez, Photos by Abby Asuncion

Retailmarky enriquez
Ooodaalolly: A Journey into Filipino Chocolate

Hernan Lauber is an engineer. He’s worked in Switzerland, lived in Australia, and often traveled to Calinog, Iloilo as a child. He speaks Swiss-German, and a little bit of French.

But what he really knows is chocolate.

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“Chocolate is really one of those products that you give away and everyone is psyched about it. No one ever regrets getting a piece of chocolate — even if you don’t care for it or can’t eat it, you know someone who would love it. It really brings joy to people.”

At a sunny café window table in the SOMA Pilipinas Cultural Heritage District, Hernan Lauber, Owner of Oodaalolly Chocolate, sits down with a US Postal Service mailer box bursting with product samples. Tempting 70 percent dark chocolate, some bars spiked with almond and sea salt, all crafted from cacao grown exclusively in The Philippines — a rare tasting experience whose roots literally connect with the Philippine land.

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“Chocolate, like wine, is an agricultural product. So the soil where the cacao is grown — the terroir — impacts the flavor of the end product, which is in this case our chocolate. And in The Philippines, they can grow all three principle strains of cacao — forestero, trinitario, and criollo. And now there are different hybrids that are being cultivated as well, and they can all thrive in the PI. Really, all of The Philippines’ diverse plant life impacts the flavor the cacao, plus the temperature, the humidity — it all imparts characteristics onto the beans as you grow them, and dry and ferment them,” Hernan says.

As a Filipino-American who, like many Filipino-Americans, is learning and discovering his heritage each day, it carries a special significance for Hernan that his product originates in The Philippines. With that in mind, it’s doubly important that Oodaalolly pass the biggest test of quality there is: the taste test.

“Certainly, we want a product that represents the quality of our process as well as the quality of our beans. But i think tasting things is really binary. You either like something, or you don’t. We want to make a product that everyone can enjoy, from someone who’s super hardcore, who wants to know the source of the beans, to someone who just wants to have a good time and share some chocolate with a friend. My real litmus test is my kids. we try to extract flavors that are unique, and interesting, but we always want to be something that has appeal to everyone. Because that’s what chocolate is,” he says.

While adhering to the lessons of deliciousness that he’s learned from his family (his father is a chocolatier, and his sister is a trained pastry chef), Hernan is also taking on no less than the challenge of helping to cultivate an industry. With Filipino beans comprising less than two percent of the world’s entire cacao output, Hernan is a kind of ambassador for Filipino cacao production, and his bars serve as an addictive proof-of-concept.

“It takes three to five years for a cacao tree to bear fruit. It’s a long term process, but that length of time gives us space to learn how to do it properly. And we’ve connected with some organizations through the Cacao Road Map — a government-sponsored program that helps local farmers orient their operations to cacao production, so they can learn to grow premium quality raw product that, because of its rarity and scarcity, could be sold at a higher rate.”

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Clearly, there are a number of lenses which impact the scope of Oodaalolly’s relatively straightforward mission of making yummy chocolate. But despite those layers of complexity, Hernan’s taking a studied and steady approach that as much a reflection of his confidence in his product as his family’s deep ties to the land — and one that he hopes will allow him to create a truly unique, “tree-to-bar” product in the future.

“My grandfather owns land in Calinog, Iloilo, thats been passed down through our family. He was a rice farmer, and we decided a few years ago to plant some cacao on the land to see what would happen. And our trees bore fruit ahead of schedule, so we grew a few more plants — a few hundred more. And they’re thriving, growing naturally as if they belong there. So we’re cultivating more of them — about 4,000 seedlings. i don't anticipate a huge orchard, but the possibility of doing tree-to-bar — controlling the whole process, from growing, to harvesting, to fermenting and processing is really, really exciting.”

It’s an excitement that Hernan — a Philadelphia native — is eager to share with the SOMA Pilipinas community at Undiscovered SF, and something he says is another source of inspiration and driving energy for Oodaalolly.

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“Being in the Bay Area, it’s like a whole different world from Philadelphia. There’s so much Filipino life to explore and be a part of, and with my mom and my kids, going around the area and seeing all the entrepreneurship and people being proud of their cultural identity. Especially right now, with the food, there’s just so much amazing culinary work coming out of our community, and it’s so exciting to be a part of it. It’s pushing us beyond what we ourselves might know about our own culture. It’s not just adobo, or what we had at home.”

By pushing past what’s known, Hernan has created a genuinely special product that could be at the heart of a brand-new source of chocolate for the entire world. And with the promise of an especially rare strain of cacao yet to be isolated, Oodaalolly’s story is just beginning. Be sure to get a taste of their journey at Undiscovered SF this July.

“We’re trying to find a naturally-occurring criollo strain, because it’s very rare. We have heard rumors of people who have found it — it was like rediscovering things that we thought was extinct. So we’ve heard some stories that it’s growing in certain areas of the Philippines, and so we’re doing our due diligence to make sure that it is what they say it is. I don’t know where this journey will take us, but just interacting with something that not a lot of people know exist is already exciting on its own.”

Photos by Abby Asuncion

Foodmarky enriquezfood
Angle Is Attitude with Tilted Brim

“I grew up in the East Bay, in Union City, a suburb of Oakland, and I came up with a lot of different people. And Filipino kids were always known to have a lot of style that was respected not just within our own group, but also was respected and lauded by all the other groups as well. I think that really carried a lot of weight to me, like, 'Hey man, it's cool to be Filipino!' And maybe when my parents were growing up, especially my dad growing up in Queens, it probably wasn't that cool to be Filipino.”

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Justin Bautista, along with partner and college buddy Nathaniel Torres, opened the streetwear boutique Tilted Brim in the Tenderloin just over a year ago with the intention of creating a shop that expressed their core philosophy: Angle Is Attitude.

“My style icons were my mom, my dad, and my grandpa... He always had a really good style, pretty tailored, because in his day you didn’t buy stuff off the rack — the finest dressers always had their clothing made.

“The attitude that we try to bring in the store is kind of like a street smart, hustling appreciation for the City and sports and style, and attention to detail, all wrapped together through a look that is as nonchalant as it is rooted in street fashion and sport style.”

Still, Justin is careful to highlight how, despite the influences of streetwear and hip-hop culture, his family and his upbringing had a major impact on his understanding of aesthetic — and therefore, the approach to clothing on display at Tilted Brim.

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“My style icons were my mom, my dad, and my grandpa. My grandpa came to New York when my dad was seven. He always had a really good style, pretty tailored, because in his day you didn’t buy stuff off the rack — the finest dressers always had their clothing made. And then my mom's mom was a dressmaker, and all of my mom's clothes growing up were all made by her mom, my grandma. So I think that’s where I get my eye for style and fashion, because it is ingrained that deeply into me. And I also think that my dad’s childhood in New York also had a huge influence his style, and therefore on me, and therefore on the store's style, and its location, and its identity as sort of an underdog.”

Presenting that mentality through a carefully curated lineup of brands and products, Tilted Brim stocks wares that evoke a sensibility that’s decidedly modern and urban, while still paying respect to the heritage brands that helped institute the idea of streetwear in the formative late ‘80s and early ‘90s

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“We have our own line, Tilted Brim, the name of the shop. And it consists of cut-and-sew, accessories, and printables. We've got Ben Davis, which is a work wear brand that started in San Francisco -- and Ben Davis' grandfather actually helped invent blue jeans with Levi Strauss, so we thought it was important to bring that type of connection, given that jeans were invented in San Francisco. So Ben Davis kind of was a street wear brand before there was even street wear, because there weren't any brands that catered to more discerning young people. But on the other side, we have Champion from Europe. And Champion is kind of another brand that people wore as street wear before there were dedicated brands. And it's fabricated really nicely, with great details and great fit -- and it adds an element of exclusivity, because we are the only store in the City with this collection.”

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Working with a boutique mentality has helped connect Tilted Brim with the other small businesses in the Tenderloin — a tight-knit community that Justin indicates as a key driver for Tilted Brim’s involvement with Undiscovered SF, where he feels the project helps contribute to wider goals of ownership and economic empowerment for Filipino-Americans in the Bay Area.

“One of my neighbors over here at the shop plugged me into Undiscovered -- Andy Alvarado of The Family Room. He is one block over and two blocks up from me, and he asked if I was interested by the Undiscovered show. And I thought it was a really good idea, and Andy signed up for the first one, and he got us into the first one, back in August. And we both had a really good event -- it was crazy, that first one, just how many people showed up. And the night after, I remember, we booked for the rest of the Undiscovered calendar for the year. I like the idea of food, retail, and entertainment all together -- it's not just something that Filipino people like to do, but something that people like to do.”