Posts in Food
The Jeepney Guy: Lechon and the Search for Crispy Skin

“Lechon is what we eat when we want to celebrate something. Weddings, birthdays, baptisms — it’s the official dish for Christmas in the Philippines. It’s a party on a plate!”

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Dennis Villafranca’s six years as The Jeepney Guy — serving a straight-up menu of self-professed atypical Filipino cuisine, including his famous boneless lechon — have been dedicated to sharing an energy that harkens to traditional fiestas by presenting a casual, approachable vibe. It’s a family and community-oriented experience that, for Dennis, is critical to the identity of his project because of how The Jeepney Guy got its start.

“In a previous life, I used to work in construction and furniture design. My last job was managing the store planning and design department of a major US retailer. I did that for ten years — until they sucked the life out of me. I just missed too many things with my kids and family. I was always at work. So I walked away from that. Now I cook [lechon] for a living, and my family can't get away from me.”

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Lechon is a unique, centuries-old eating experience that’s dear to Filipino-Americans, evoking memories of milestones and holidays filled with a warm sense of togetherness. For Dennis and his team, joining the rich tradition of roasting lechon meant paying respect to traditional methods and techniques — and tons of hard work to perfect what most consider to be the most essential and defining aspect of a plate of lechon.

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“That crispy skin kept getting away from me. It literally took me years to figure it out, and when I hit that “EUREKA!” moment, I knew I had something special. But the funny thing is, lechon wasn't even part of the plan when I decided to get into this business. I just knew I wanted to cook a lot of meat.”

He’s certainly doing just that, drawing crowds of diners who gawk at The Jeepney Guy’s massive rotisseries packed with rotating spits of pork, anxiously awaiting a plate of Dennis’ famous boneless lechon — roasted for hours and served up traditional with garlic rice and atchara (pickled papaya), or on a fresh roll with adobo au jus. And with Filipino food continuing to capture the culinary zeitgeist — especially on the West Coast — Dennis and his team take pride in their job as stewards of the national dish of the Philippines, even if their methods, techniques, and flavors differ from traditional preparations.

“Lechon is what we eat when we want to celebrate something. Weddings, birthdays, baptisms — it’s the official dish for Christmas in the Philippines. It’s a party on a plate!”

“I put love in every lechon. I still prep each and every boneless lechon that we sell, and we cook thousands of them every year. I’m not ready to hand that responsibility over yet. And my method is far from traditional. This is how I want the pork to taste, and we keep the recipe very simple. People ask me if it’s Cebu style, or they tell me to stick lemon grass or herbs inside the pig. But I just tell them that I want it to taste like pork. I like to think of it as ‘California style!’”

In this way, the scope of The Jeepney Guy represents an approach that mirrors the rising momentum surrounding the Filipino-American community. By applying ideas and principles built on personal experience as well as Filipino tradition, Dennis has created a dining destination that’s fun and easy to enjoy while also representing something much more weighty — the identity of a people, and their collective memories of growing up Filipino in America.

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“I’ve catered more Filipino First birthday parties than I can count. We like to change up traditional Filipino dishes a little bit, and Filipinos get a kick out of it. Lechon is that special dish that you only eat during special occasions. So when you come to us, it feels like an indulgence — like it’s a special meal that you shouldn’t be eating in a more casual setting. And for Filipino-Americans, it’s like you’re reconnecting with those memories of Filipino parties, or maybe even being in the Philippines.”

The Coffee Adventure’s Delicious Journey

“My partner Karen Togle-Recinto and I are both lawyers in the Philippines -- we know each other from law school. And after I moved to the States in 2007, we got together again and thought of doing a business together -- because I didn't want to be a lawyer anymore! It was too much stress. Practicing law in the Philippines is a different ballgame in a lot of ways, and I was getting tired of it. But we developed our love for cafés in law school. We lived on coffee and cigarettes!”

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DD Peña, head chef of The Coffee Adventure, laughs through his phone speaker as he describes the history of the project, which produces hand-made Filipino deli items like embutido (Filipino meat loaf), beef tapa, and Vigan-style longanisa for delivery nationwide, as well as serving a tempting menu of Pinoy Sliders — the spicy Chori Burger slider made with chorizo sausage, the sweet and savory Pinoy Burger slider, and the Adobo Flakes slider, a house special recipe of stewed, shredded chicken and pork crisped on a flattop griddle just before serving. It’s an operation that’s rooted in DD’s personal history as a business owner in the Philippines, uniquely colored by the food he grew up eating.

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"We opened a coffee shop a little over seven years ago in Milpitas. And I owned a Figaro franchise in the Philippines -- it's a popular coffee chain, and I was their lawyer. And then I became a franchisee, with my franchise open in Alabang. So when Karen and I were talking about going into business together, I mentioned the coffee shop because of my familiarity with that business. And even though I had no experience cooking, I was excited to take on that role and see what I could do with it — especially with my family’s adobo recipe.”

Making the shift from corporate lawyer to small business owner — throughout the process of immigration — was a transition that DD says has helped him take a slower approach to life, while also enjoying a greater sense of independence.

"My life now, with my duties at The Coffee Adventure, it's a little slower than it used to be. I much prefer it! Being able to direct the course of your own business, and the decisions I make aren't as life and death as they used to be; having a client's livelihood in your hands can be really mentally taxing. The Coffee Adventure is much more physically taxing, because I am there every day, and I cook all the food myself, so it can be exhausting! But I like the rhythm and pace of my day because I am in control.”

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That aspect of control is especially important to DD as the popularity of Filipino cuisine continues to rise across the mainstream. For The Coffee Adventure team, being counted among the Undiscovered SF vendors who are helping shape the narrative around what modern Filipino cuisine is supposed to look and taste like carries special significance, spreading a sense of cultural pride through carefully crafted dishes that are meant to engage Filipino and western palates alike.

“If what we are trying to do is to bring our food to the mainstream, it's hard to envision non-Filipinos going to a traditional turo-turo spot. We try to make our food more elegant and appealing to the non-Filipino base, but we want to make sure that the flavors and the techniques we're presenting are very recognizable and attractive to the Filipino customer. Because they are going to be our biggest advocates -- the Filipino customer has the inherent understanding of our food and our flavors, and is going to be our most passionate promoter to their non-Filipino friends. All the major chefs are all talking about Filipino food being the next big thing, and the only way to do that is for non-Filipinos to start appreciating our food. Undiscovered SF is a great place for them to start. Because even if it is a Filipino event, that's essentially for the Filipino market, where Filipino people can feel at home and feel that there is something that's for and about them, they're going to be buzzing and telling all their friends about how fun it was, and how good the food was, and to try the Pinoy Sliders offered at The Coffee Adventure.”

The Hella Healthy Mission of Oakland’s No Worries

“I was in high school when my mother had a heart attack. The doctors told her it was stress and diet-related.” Jay-Ar Isagani Pugao’s voice is stern as he relays how a deep concern for his mother’s health set off a series of events that led to his fully vegan Filipino project, No Worries.

“My way of trying to help my mom was going vegetarian. And telling her that I just wasn't going to eat any meat, because I thought that was the best thing for her. And I basically was trying to coerce her to cook healthier for everyone by going vegetarian. Which basically worked -- she started cooking healthier, she is actually the one who found the meat alternatives that I use, like all the soy proteins, the tofu, the Seitan. She is the one that found these alternatives, and so ever since she started using them in Filipino dishes -- you know, the first time she used it in a Filipino dish, I was almost mad at her, I was like, "Mom, what is this, I told you I am vegetarian!" And you know, she showed me the packet of what she was using, which wasn't meat, and I was just kind of blown away because I was eating it and it was our flavor, but it wasn't meat.”

For Jay-Ar, both the practice of cooking and the practice of not eating meat quickly evolved into more than just methods for a healthier family lifestyle -- and it’s a mindset that he’s tried to build into the No Worries ethos since he started the project as a high-schooler in Oakland, 18 years ago.

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“It was just something I knew I had to spread. I was really into vegetarianism at the time -- you know, aside from being passionate about trying to get my family healthy, I was really into the benefits of being vegetarian. So you know, it was borne out of, "You know what, I need to help my family get healthy. I feel like I can get in the kitchen," but it wasn't really my passion until I started doing it. When I started doing it, it just became something I loved. Feeding people delicious and healthy food is something I love, knowing the benefits of vegetarianism, and if I can allow someone to eat one meatless meal, that's something I love. And so these are things that became a part of cooking for me, you know, so it wasn't something that I knew I was passionate about until I started doing it.”

He also stresses the evolution of his passion and mission, initially growing out of a desire to expand the palates and health consciousness of his own Filipino community while also understanding No Worries as a project that pursues positive outcomes for the entire planet.

“Early on, I was trying to prove to my Filipino community that [No Worries] was Filipino food. It was a little bit backwards because I wasn't trying to feed all people. I was trying to take care of my community by showing them what was healthy, but traditional. So I wasn't out there, care of my community by showing them what was healthy, but traditional. So I wasn't out there, like, "Hey [everybody], look! This is the new wave, this is Filipino food! It wasn't like that at all." It was more intimate. And it was a more traditional agenda, and that was just trying to provide healthy food to my community while preserving the flavors. But what I am doing now is for the health of everyone who wants it, and really for the planet, and for animals. I mean, that's just what I have evolved to.”

But arriving at this point as a Filipino vegan restaurant -- serving popular dishes like apritada, bisteck, and lugaw that are traditionally flavored with meat -- meant dealing with skepticism about his food from the Filipino community itself, a process that, while difficult, Jay- Ar says led to a progressive, clear-headed way of thinking about his restaurant and about Filipino-American cultural identity.

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“The reality is I actually endured hecka criticism, and for hella long, [Filipino] people were telling me ‘That's not Filipino food.’ And sometimes I would go to family parties, you know, my mom had to stick up for me, she had to be like, "Oh, he already ate, it's OK. He already ate." You know, my mom had my back, because she knew my ultimate goal. I was hella about that life. And then, you know, things happen, I do more markets here and there, and the vegetarian community, or I would say, Americans, started to come to [mess] with me. And to them it was exotic, but it was also, like, authentic. To me, you can look at the Philippines in general, and take one dish, and it's cooked differently in different regions. So to me, that means I have the capacity to make it mine. And when you look at it in that way, then you know, then it's like, ‘This is Filipino, because I made it.’”

That certainty around the positivity of the No Worries mission, as well as its decidedly Filipino identity, has led to opportunities where Jay-Ar is able to address the initial aim of his project -- improving the health and diet practices of the Filipino-American community.

 

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“Eventually, when I opened my restaurant in 2010, we had a big-ass following, but it was mostly non-Filipinos. And somehow, like, different Filipino news learned about us, and then I got on Adobo Nation, and then Filipinos started coming to my restaurant, bringing their grandmothers, or being like, "Yo, my tita hella appreciates what you do." And so something clicked -- or, a realization happened for me where, I thought to myself, like I can't really try to convert people or bash people in the head. It's just -- people will come when it's their time to come. And you know, I started getting a little bit larger, and San Francisco General Hospital, Kaiser, and different health clinics started calling me, asking me to do [healthy] cooking demos, because a lot of their patients were Filipino elders! So that was crazy to me, you know, of course, a lot of nurses are Filipino, but a lot of their patients were Filipino elders, too.”

And although he keeps his Filipino heritage at the forefront of what he does in the kitchen, Jay-Ar maintains that No Worries is concerned with a goal that’s much larger than what he initially set out to do, a“I am like, 18 years strong vegan -- you know, my perspective on this is I am creating tradition at this point. I don't really care anymore what people say about, "Oh, breaking tradition, or this is not part of [Filipino food]," I don't really care about that anymore. To me, if I can get one meatless meal off of your plate, I have done my job because we have saved hella gallons of water, natural resources, an animal, and your body. So you know, that is just where I am at, so, you know, if you are asking me now what I wish to bring, I just want to bring No Worries in its most authentic mission, which is to just do good for the world, man. I want to do good for your body, the planet, the animals, that's really what I want to do.”

And he’s looking forward to sharing his take on Filipino food and culture with the visitors to UNDSCVRD. 

“As a people, we are hella wealthy, we are rich with talent and culture. All of it. And to me it's an honor to be a part of it, because what I am doing is different, and to me, [with] UNDSCVRD, [we] are trying to showcase Filipinos in their dopest form, so I am hella with that.”

Pinoy Heritage’s Trans-Pacific Pantry

Emerging from clouds of fragrant barbecue smoke masking the crowd at Pacific Cocktail Haven on Sutter, Chef Francis Ang of Pinoy Heritage, in shorts and an apron, projects a calming energy that seems to quiet the overwhelming din of the popular happy-hour haunt. He shakes hands, offers a quick smile, then shrugs.

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“So I guess I’ll just fire away. You aren’t allergic to anything, right?” he says casually, and turns back for the kitchen, expertly skating through the amoebic crowd toward the kitchen steps, nestled in a crook between the bar and lounge.

Minutes later, the first plate arrives: corn with crab fat butter and salted duck egg powder, flanked by bistec skewers -- garnished with preserved calamansi -- and chicken inasal with marinated cucumbers and pickled garlic. A second plate presents grilled figs with chorizo and purslane mixed greens, beside Francis’ lobster pancit, followed by the third course: sisig fried rice with pickled onions, topped with a perfectly poached egg. Soon after, Francis reappears at the table with slightly disheveled hair and his hands on his hips, nodding thoughtfully at our scraped-clean plates before sitting down to talk about the history of his project -- rooted in a strong sense of duty and service to the Filipino community.

“My wife and I went back to the Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan, so about 2013, and we were stuck there, we got hit by the typhoon, we were like spot on where the typhoon made landfall. So we did a small fundraiser there, and then we came back to San Frncisco and put on a full-on fundraiser at The Fifth Floor, where I was the pastry chef. We did an all-Filipino dinner with a bunch of Filipino friends, and a bunch of restaurants supported, and a lot of people came out as well, and that kind of triggered us to do what’s become Pinoy Heritage.”

The project’s name genuinely reflects the Pinoy Heritage team’s dedication to a thorough, ongoing examination of the Filipino kitchen and its countless iterations across the islands of the Philippines.

“We've been back to the Philippines twice recently: the first time was six months, last year, and this year we are at two-and-a-half months. We have been traveling to different regions, learning the cuisine, and learning how things are prepared. It means a lot because we get to express our country's food: it's not 100 percent per se, because we are doing it with California ingredients.”

It’s a demanding research process that Francis, through his education, is familiar with and thus happy to undertake -- but it also serves as to inform Francis’ main space of self-expression.

“Obviously, our grandparents are big influences on our food, but honestly, cooking ... I don't know. There's no real reason I started. I went to the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines for Food Technology, then I came out here and went straight to culinary school. I didn't study anything else. So I have been cooking ever since I was, I don't know, 19? And then I have always cooked both savory and pastry, but since I went to culinary school, I met this pastry chef/instructor Mark Hobson, he's really talented, he opened my eyes to how you can be artistic, because I can't really sing, or dance, or do any other artistic stuff, and I realized that cooking was an outlet for my creativity.”

Today, part of satisfying that creative impulse means engaging with larger currents surrounding Filipino food culture and, Francis says, working to turn his personal expression into work that benefits his community.

“The Filipino food movement is kind of a wake-up call, you know, since Filipino food sort of blew up and it happened, it just kind of woke up a bunch of Filipinos. It's time for us to open our own joints, it's time to do Filipino food because it's like -- why can't we get good Filipino food in the City? Right now, it's there in small pockets, but it's not obvious. And it just makes sense that we want to try to open something and be part of that, and grow Filipino cuisine to where it is more accessible.”

At the same time, Francis sees that growth as going hand-in-hand with a perspective that looks beyond simply serving “Filipino food.”

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“I don't see what I am doing as solely Filipino food -- I am trying to compete with the rest of the good restaurants in the City. It's not just like, I want to be better than X restaurant -- I want to be like Liho Liho Yacht Club, it's packed every day, I want to be like State Bird Provisions. It's not just good Filipino food that's my goal. It’s a good restaurant.”

Francis’ crazy delicious offerings at UNDISCOVERED will include barbecue skewers, from-scratch pancit, and sisig fried rice.

“UNDISCOVERED is great exposure for Filipino culture. Because a lot of people have no idea where the Philippines is, let alone how to spell it! So that's going to be a wake-up call, and then they are going to realize how good Filipino food is, and everybody is going to go eat Filipino food more than any other cuisine. Just kidding!"