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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.

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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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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

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