Posts in Food
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
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
Nick's Kitchen On Going Vegan And Never Turning Back

“My main worry in the beginning was: vegan and Filipino food, is this an abomination to my culture? But we didn’t really have a choice: it was either go out of business, or switch to the vegan menu. So we did it. The next thing you know, we’re running out of food and there are lines out the door! That first week we were open as a vegan place, I was in the corner crying because I couldn’t believe the support. We were at the point of closing down; now, even Colin Kaepernick comes by to eat, because he’s a vegan. Going vegan literally saved our business.”

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Reina Montenegro relaxes on a mellow weekday afternoon at a window-side two-top inside Nick’s, her Filipino vegan eatery on the border of Daly City and The Excelsior that, in just nine months, has built a loyal and rapidly-expanding following for its tasty, meat- and animal-free interpretations of Filipino classics like silog, caldereta, lumpia, adobo, and lechon kawali. Alternating her gaze between the restaurant’s view of the Cow Palace and the play of her preschool-aged daughter, Reina recounts how she develops the completely vegan Filipno menu by closely studying Filipino culinaria’s most treasured ingredients: meat and animal products.

“I haven’t been vegan for too long, but I’ve been eating pork my entire life. So for vegan versions of Filipino dishes, the taste I can pretty much nail down right away. Every single Filipino dish that I miss as a vegan, I just keep trying and trying until we get the taste and texture down. Of course, the main ones are the vegan sisig, the lumpia, the kare-kare, the pancit. But the leche flan, for me, was the proudest moment, because it took me six months to do! Lots of trial and error and frustrated moments. So I guard that recipe with my life!” Reina says.

For Reina and her partner Kenny, ensuring that Nick’s offerings appeal to a wide range of palates — not just vegans, or those familiar with Filipino cuisine — is central to their mission. Just like any restaurant that’s a mainstay in people’s rotations, Nick’s strives first and foremost to make delicious, filling food that delivers value and satisfaction to the community — and a major part of that mission includes respecting the health of the customer by presenting a menu of tempting yet wholesome options.

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“If a vegan comes here and they say, ‘Oh my god, the food is so good,’ I’m like, ‘OK, thank you, I appreciate that.’ But when a meat-eater comes here and says, ‘My GOD! I’m blown away by this!’ — then I’m crying, you know? Because to me, that’s the goal: to really tell people you don’t have to eat here and think you’re going to starve, or that you’re not getting an authentic dish because you’re eating vegan. And in the beginning, there were hardly any Filipinos. But now, we’re seeing lots of young, health-conscious Filipnos taking their families here — and sometimes they don’t tell them that we’re vegan! And when they find out, most of them say ‘My god, this is so close! I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t told us it was vegan,’” Reina says.

By providing such a thorough concept and forward-thinking culinary experience, Nick’s is uniquely positioned to nourish an entire generation of diners who are looking for much more in restaurant options than mere affordability and flavor — whether they’re Filipinx, vegan, both, or neither. In fact, for its healthy and authentic fare, Nick’s has earned a special place in the hearts of the organizers, artists, activists, and families who live and work in the SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District — championed most directly by Carla Laurel, a practicing vegan and the Executive Director of West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center.

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“Sometimes being Filipino and vegan can seem like the biggest contradiction. That is why Nick's is so important to me, because I fully identify with both. It is almost impossible without cooking food on your own to have access to Filipino food as a vegan, and that is where Nick's comes in. They make Filipino food that is true soul food and loved by many non-vegans. Trust: I know, because I take almost everyone I know there and they cannot believe its vegan. Nick's is important because food is cultural, especially Filipino food, it brings you home and lets you into someone's heart and soul and childhood. As a Filipina and a vegan, Nick's makes me feel proud that I can enjoy my favorite foods without promoting harm or injustice to anyone or any living thing. Nick's helps FIlipinos know that you can still eat amazing soul home-cooked heart warming food, while still loving yourself - mind, body, and soul,” Carla says.

 

The food at Nick’s represents something much more than simple healthy eating; it delivers a sense of caring and home, and that is not by mistake. Because although the root of the vegan menu at Nick’s is indeed the result of Reina and Kenny’s business acumen, their lifestyle as vegans originates from a much more personal practice of self-care.

 

“Kenny had a skin condition for 30 years and nobody could figure out what it was. It was this flowering thing that would come out raised and itchy, and he was suffering for so long. He went to doctors, took a bunch of pills, but no one ever said anything about food. So one day I said, ’Hey, you know what? You’re already vegetarian, why don’t you become vegan? Just see what it is, see if it’s dairy, because I read a lot about dairy.’ Sure enough, just two days after cutting out dairy, the suffering of 30 years ended. So we really believe in this stuff, you know. It’s not some gimmick. It’s who we are,” Reina says.

By simply staying true to themselves, Reina and Kenny have seen Nick’s grow exponentially since their full-time switch to their vegan menu, and are now planning to open a second location in another Filipino enclave: South San Francisco. Reina promises that the menu at this location will emphasize salads and smoothies alongside the classics from the original Nick’s on Geneva — and she’s looking forward to sharing all of this positivity with the community gathering at Undiscovered SF in August.

“I have wanted to be a part of Undiscovered since before we were vegan. It’s just so important to support the SOMA Pilipinas community, I always want to be a part of that. And when we finally became vegan, somebody was like, “Hey, you should be part of Undiscovered,” and at the meeting, everyone on the team was so enthusiastic. It’s an honor to be the only vegan food vendor on the roster, and we’re really excited about it!”

Written and edited by Paul Barerra and Cat Jimenez. Photography by Albert Law 

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

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