The Filipino Food Renaissance: An East Coast X West Coast Primer

The current dialogue (2010 and on) around Filipino Food the is a pong ball contest between the East Coast and West Coast. In 2012, Nicole Poneseca in New York piqued the interest of the foodie world with her critically acclaimed fine dining restaurant Maharlika followed shortly by fusion friendly Jeepney Grill.

A few years later Los Angeles builds steam with the inventive interpretations of Filipino food by the classically trained Valencia brothers that would go on to open Lasa. In DTLA,  Charles Olalia's tiny Rice Bar pumped out a different version of Adobo for 52 weeks in a row highlighting the versatility of our national dish.

And then out of nowhere came Bad Saint in straight out of DC--Washington D.C. In 2016, Bad Saint won Bon Appetit's #2 Best New Restaurant in America award and the spotlight of Filipino food swung back to the East Coast.

In all of this buzz, where is the Bay Area--the home of the largest concentration of Filipino Americans in the nation?

SF Represent

Poleng Lounge was a mecca for Filipino cuisine and nightlife during its time.

Poleng Lounge was a mecca for Filipino cuisine and nightlife during its time.

What's been forgotten by most pundits is SF launched the modern Filipino Food Movement in 2005.

Led by Poleng Lounge’s  Chef Tim Luym & UNDSCVRD co-founder Desi Danganan, Poleng ushered Filipino Food into the mainstream. When it opened it quickly garnered a 3 star rating (top 1%) by preeminent food writer Micheal Bauer. Chef Tim Luym went on to win the Chronicle Rising Star Chef Award. Soon other fine dining citadels opened like Placencia, Mercury Lounge, or Bistro Luneta in San Mateo each with their own uniquely modern take on Filipino food.

The boom was short lived. By 2010 all of them went dark, but it inspired a new wave of restauranteurs to follow. The modern Filipino Food movement was an industry first and a foreshadowing of the renaissance to come 10 years later.

The 3rd Wave

Ate Tess of JT Restaurant at the historic Mint Mall located in the heart of SOMA Pilipinas. Photo by Abby Asuncion Photography.

Ate Tess of JT Restaurant at the historic Mint Mall located in the heart of SOMA Pilipinas. Photo by Abby Asuncion Photography.

The 1st wave of Filipino food in America was your traditional turo-turo (point - point) restaurant. They served homestyle meals in a Hofbrau-like fashion. Big servings and economically priced, the 1st wave was about feeding communities at a price anyone could afford.

The 2nd wave of Filipino food in America started in New York’s fashionable SoHo Distirct in the mid 1990’s with Cendrilion. It was the first Filipino restaurant in America to present Filipino food with a contemporary fine dining approach. Other classical chefs followed suit in San Francisco from 2005-2010 like the aforementioned Poleng Lounge.  

The 3rd wave quickly followed, but this new school of restaurateurs didn’t confine their style of Filipino food within the world of fine dining and white table clothes. These chefs & entrepreneurs are taking Filipino food in radically new directions. They are selling food from food trucks, pop-ups, festival tents, and restaurants. They are rolling sisig into burritos, ube into frozen custard, reintroducing Kamayan style dining, sinigang served at masquerade speakeasys, halo-halo milk as bottled drinks... the combinations are endless.

UNDSCVRD Filipino Food in SF

The explosion of creativity led to a pack of 5 new Filipino food businesses in 2016 in SOMA Pilipinas. Each food business took a different approach to Filipino food. Mestiza a Filipino fusion taqueria, Alchemy a Japanese Filipino bar bite concept, FK Frozen Custard, Sarap Shop a fusion mash-up food truck, and Manila Bowl a comfort food rice bowl concept.

Many Filipino restaurants were featured in Eater SF, yet none from SOMA Pilipinas were represented.

Many Filipino restaurants were featured in Eater SF, yet none from SOMA Pilipinas were represented.

Then in 2017, UNDSCVRD Creative Night Markets came roaring into the scene and with it came 15 new Filipino street food vendors to SOMA Pilipinas. From sweet to savory, UNDSCVRD became a platform for the 3rd Wave and helped launch a Filipino cultural district.

I’m proud of the diversity of offerings UNDSCVRD curates, but it’s limiting. You just can’t fit all Filipino food into a food tent and call it a day. Festivals only work well with certain types of finger foods and dishes. There’s a brave new world of pop-up chefs out there doing amazing things with Filipino food and the experience of eating it and we haven’t been able to showcase them properly until now!”

— Desi Danganan UNDSCVRD co-founder and formerly of Poleng Lounge

Enter Kulinary Confidential

The cutting edge of Filipino food is still on the underground. Pop-up chefs are exploring new frontiers of cuisine. For example, Aileen Suraza of Sariwa will be presenting a curation of Filipino Indian dishes inspired by her very own wedding menu. Meanwhile, Ox and Tiger, a Japanese and Filipino chef duo, will present their take of a Filipino Japanese menu.  On the other end of the spectrum, our mainstay restaurants like Manila Bowl will be presenting hard to find delicacies such as Dinugunan with Puto (pork blood stew with rice cakes) on their secret menu. Legacy restaurant JT’s will be serving a classic homestyle Chicken Aftritada as their secret menu item. “

Kulinary Confidential is our most ambitious food project to date. Spanning 14 days, 7 restaurants serving secret menu items, and 6 unique pop-up dinners it will be a culinary tour de force that will make SOMA Pilipinas the nexus of the Filipino Food Renaissance.”

— Desi Danganan UNDSCVRD co-founder and formerly of Poleng Lounge
FoodCat Jimenezfood
HABIness: Weaving Identities Together

“Weaving came just at the right time into my life. It is a vehicle which, in a tactile and kinetic way, helps me deepen my process of  re-indigenization as an Ilocana.”

HABIness owner and dreamweaver Rachel Lozada with son Andres and his wife Jojo at UNDSCVRD’s October night market.

HABIness owner and dreamweaver Rachel Lozada with son Andres and his wife Jojo at UNDSCVRD’s October night market.

Rachel Lozada, owner and in her own words “dreamweaver” of HABIness, the textile and craft pop-up, is a veteran organizer and activist whose pedigree in community work literally spans the Pacific Ocean. Still, she notes a recent evolution in perspective as a key motivator for her foray into small business, specializing in handmade and handwoven textiles directly sourced from the Philippines many of which Rachel herself sews into more wearable contemporary-designed pieces. Rachel explains, “Habi” is the Pilipino word for “weave”, so HABIness is a play on words that evoke the happiness that weaving brings into my life.”

“I immigrated to the States when I was 30, so I didn't have the ‘stereotypical’ experience that most Fil-Ams might go through. I had been an activist in the Philippines since my mid- to late teens, and so the anti-colonization and anti-imperialist struggle was very much a focal point of my adult life. But the awakening to the need to reclaim my indigenous Ilocano identity came in the last six years, and into further fruition when I got involved with Kalingaforina Laga, a weaving circle of women promoting the art of Kalinga backstrap weaving called “laga”,” Rachel says.

With its strong affinity to Kalingafornia Laga, HABIness invites people to connect with the story and tradition of the meticulous traditional handicrafts of the Philippines. To explore that connection through the threads of their own lineage and hopefully gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of where they come from.

“Kalingafornia Laga weaving circle gradually grew out of a common desire to learn laga, the art of Kalinga back-strap weaving. But it’s about more than just learning to weave, it's a traditional art form, a conveyor of indigenous culture that has survived despite colonization. And our circle engages in place-making projects and activities for community to gather together and connect around common interests around our culture, history and our roots both in the homeland and here in Diaspora. It's very much a decolonization and maybe even a re-indigenization project and effort,if people awaken to that level,” Rachel says. And hers is a continuous process as she now begins to learn “abel”, the Ilocano weaving tradition.

Certainly, the spiritual process of reckoning with decolonization and re-indigenization is as unique to each person as their individual history. But through both Kalingafornia Laga and HABIness, it has become clear to Rachel that it’s a process that many if not most Filipinos in the diaspora are undertaking, and is only strengthened by forming strong bonds with others who share national, ethnic, linguistic, and generational ties.

“There is a real curiosity in the Filipino-American community to see more handicrafts like what  HABIness offers. There are so many issues within our community that stem directly from colonization. Dealing with that has to start somewhere, and a good place to start is by recognizing and using our Filipino ancestry and re-discovering our indigenous identities that have been eroded as a base for building our identity and community. Art is such an accessible vehicle – it's visual, it's tactile, and it’s even wearable – and I think weaving is such a powerful vehicle for folks to experience that connection to ancestry and open them up to aspects of their indigenous identity that is there for us to reclaim and rediscover,” Rachel says.

In turn, Rachel cites childhood memories of traditional, heritage crafts as yet another touchstone for her relationship with her lineage and, by extension, the ways that HABIness looks to help its community strengthen their own connections to their roots.

“Growing up, my grandparents on my father's side would always give me and my siblings Ilocano woven blankets. They were beautiful. So I always had this romantic thing about weaving, something that I approached with the mindset of ‘Oh, it’s so pretty and I love it, but I could never do it. It’s too hard for me.’ And then as I learned to weave and furthered my practice, I found that it was also deepening my process of resurfacing my indigenous identity,” Rachel says.

As she continues to unravel the history and craft of weaving and her personal relationship with the practice, she has found that being part of the rising tide of entrepreneurs and small business owners concentrated here in the San Francisco diaspora constitutes a serious responsibility to the indigenous identity that all Filipinx people share.

“I think there's that umbrella of Filipino or Pinay-Pinoy entrepreneurship, whether it's Filipino-oriented graphic tee shirts, books, textiles, hand-carved pendants, or baybayin calligraphy on postcards – these are sacred pieces because, in these forms, they are vehicles for us to convey culture - especially indigenous culture - that has been eroded, suppressed, and marginalized within Philippine culture as well. That's a very powerful process for our people to engage in,” Rachel says.

In that way, people who come to Undiscovered SF and take home or buy a gift of an Ilocano weave sewn into a contemporary wrap or scarf from HABIness are doing even more than just supporting local business, or even growing the Filipino Cultural Heritage District. They’re preserving traditions that are hundreds of years old and helping advance alongside their rightful bearers as Filipinx people continue to connect and make community.

“For me, HABIness is a way for myself and for others to publicly manifest  our proud identity as ‘Filipinos Living In The Diaspora,’ or ‘Filipino-Americans’ or however people want to identify. My hope is that HABIness contributes to inspiring Filipino people into centering ourselves and making our voices heard and positively project our place in society. I want to encourage people to learn more about weaving and handmade crafts as a tradition and a language of our people!”

Written by Paul Barrera and Cat Jimenez.

RetailCat Jimenezretail
Granny Cart Gangstas x The Lola Project Celebrate Pinay Power!

“I feel like everyone played dress-up at home as a child, and as an adult I still have fun imagining what I am going to be like as an old lady. I think we often overlook the stories of our grandmothers and our moms and the women in our lives as just, ‘Well, that’s just what they’re supposed to do: they’re supposed to care, they’re supposed to nurture, they’re supposed to be strong and powerful.’ But for me, that ‘understated women’s work’ is where all my resilience has been drawn from.”

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Kim Arteche, the artist behind The Lola Project, and Aureen Almario of Bindlestiff Studio’s Granny Cart Gangstas comedy troupe, sit comfortably in computer chairs behind the reception desk in the Bindlestiff foyer, surrounded by memorabilia of past performances. The two camps will be collaborating on a special performance experience for attendees at this month’s Undiscovered SF Creative Night Market, focusing on the narratives of the womxn elders that were instrumental in building places and movements like SOMA Pilipinas.

“With Granny Cart Gangstas, because there is a huge group of us, it allows for a wide variety of humor. There are certain folks who write specifically from a satirical or political angle, and there are also some parodies as well. It was really borne out of the need to have a female voice in comedy in general. There really isn’t a space for us to talk about things that are funny to us specifically, and so a big part of our work is just kind of carving out that space for ourselves,” Aureen says.

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By working to document and communicate generational Pinay experiences, endeavors like The Lola Project and Granny Cart Gangstas are not so much breaking new ground as they are helping to hold down a long, rich tradition of Filipina leadership in the South of Market.

“It’s important to normalize the Pinay narrative as the Filipino narrative. I feel like, lately, especially in memoriam of Manang Dawn Mabalon, we are staring to re-frame what our history looks like for Pinays; like, you think about someone like Deanna Sison at Mestiza Taqueria, all of the entrepreneurs that I feel like I look up to are all Pinays,” Kim says.

“In SOMA Pilipinas specifically, there are a lot of women in leadership positions in our community that are taking on those roles, and taking care of the community – nurturing all of us,” Aureen says.

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Both Aureen and Kim are careful to point out the magnitude of what womxn do and have done to steward Filipino life in San Francisco. But, importantly, they also understand the mechanisms controlling how and why those stories been unfairly taken for granted, diminished, or ignored altogether. And, by the same token, they see their work with The Lola Project and Granny Cart Gangstas as designed to disrupt those mechanisms and direct the community’s attention toward significant, sustaining narratives that are almost universal to the Filipino-American experience.

“With The Lola Project, there is certainly the fun and playful aspect of it, but then also it's about engaging community in storytelling – so being able to think about people’s memories with the women in their lives is something that I think that, as our community kind of grows and moves in different ways, maybe a lot of us might not experience as often anymore: thinking about Lolas, and the special care that you can get from your grandmother or grandparents that you can't get from anyone else,” Kim says.

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“When I think about the roles that the women played in my life, it's so underappreciated. And we keep on going too. Like, the fact that the women in SOMA Pilipinas are in such leadership positions, it shows how much they have committed to still nurturing and giving service to their community, and that is hard work – that is work that often we don’t recognize, all that extra time, extra care, extra worry that we put in to building and giving life to people,” Aureen says.

So during Pinay Power month at Undiscovered SF, if you’re lucky enough to spot some curious, familiar-looking characters moving through the crowd, don’t be afraid to reach out and introduce yourself.

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“Reflect on the strength it takes to immigrate and live in a new country, that kind of resilience. Even taking five minutes to spend remembering that will remind you of the powerful lineage that you come from,” Kim says.

Written by Paul Barrera.

Binka Bites: A Tradition of Pinay Entrepreneurship

For many Filipino families, the holiday season is a special time of year that means massive family gatherings accompanied by a special year-end delicacy: bibingka, a cake made from rice flour and coconut cream, flavored with slices of salted duck egg and cheese. Traditionally, it’s only enjoyed during the holidays, but Jasmin Ongsiako and her South City-based team at Binka Bites have miniaturized and modernized this classic dessert. By widening its existing appeal through a bevy of tempting flavor creations, Binka Bites is introducing and re-introducing a Filipino favorite to a region filled with curious palates. Appropriately, it’s a story that begins with family.

“Binka Bites started in 2012 when my brother Jo Ongsiako, who is a chef, came up with this amazing bibingka recipe. I was his food taster and critic. We tweaked the recipe a few times until we created the ultimate one. I thought: ‘Why limit the bibingka to just the holiday season and just the salted duck egg and cheese flavor? It’s so delicious, it should be enjoyed all year round!’ That’s when we decided to come up with our own twist of cupcake-sized bibingka in different, fun and adventurous flavors. They became an immediate hit to family and friends, and then we started selling them at the San Mateo and Burlingame farmer’s markets,” says Jasmin Ongsiako.

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If Jasmin sounds matter-of-fact about following her entrepreneurial spirit, it’s because business ownership runs in her blood. A second-generation Filipina entrepreneur, Jasmin is proud to be part of the roster of vendors, performers, and artists for this month’s Pinay Power celebration at Undiscovered SF.

“Being a Pinay entrepreneur means a great deal to me. Growing up, my mom, Elizabeth Seim, was a successful entrepreneur, my role model and inspiration. I know she's watching over me from heaven and happy with I have achieved so far. I hope that a female-owned company like Binka Bites will encourage other Pinays who would like to start their own business and pursue their dreams, and find role models whom they identify with. It is so important that Pinays help and support each other to create a powerful force through our community, and I believe that’s something that’s happening at Undiscovered,” Jasmin says.

And despite their rapid rate of growth — Binka Bites will soon be available nationwide — the team and project are intent on staying humble, with a firm focus on their roots and their surrounding land and communities.

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“Growing up, I would always look forward to Sunday: we would have a big get-together at our home with our relatives, and everyone would bring scrumptious food they lovingly prepared to share with the whole family. My mom made the best ginisang mongo hands down! But honestly, I didn't do much cooking and baking until Binka Bites came along. Now, I am very much involved in preparing and creating exciting new flavors at our bakery in South San Francisco. We are constantly coming up with new and exciting flavors, using seasonal, fresh, local and organic ingredients wherever possible,” Jasmin says.

In this way, the story of Binka Bites is, like their delicious bite-sized pastries, a harmonious blend of tradition and experimentation. By staying true to what they know and implementing new ideas borne out of their experience as Filipino-Americans, Jasmin and her team have turned a Filipino holiday staple into a snackable treat that’s designed to remind customers of home.

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“What's wonderful about Binka Bites is that it’s a bibingka with a twist, so it makes it both traditional and modern, and caters to Filipinos, Filipino-Americans and non-Filipinos as well. Bibingka has always been my best-loved dessert ever since I was a kid. Even after having traveled and tried different kinds of pastries all over the world, bibingka is still my favorite. Binka Bites is meant to evoke happy childhood memories; our mission is to brighten people’s day, and spreading happiness — bite-sized and no-frills, wherever you are.”

Written by Paul Barrera. Photos by Albert Law.

FoodCat Jimenezfood, dessert