Evolving attitudes about Filipino cooking in D.C. have propelled the cuisine from strip mall treat to nationwide dining sensation. Local diners now routinely seek out sizzling sisig and purple yam-based desserts. Meanwhile, Filipino chefs are feeling the collective appetite for their culinary traditions.
When Eater compiled its guide to Filipino dining, there wasn’t a single restaurant dedicated to the Southeast Asian cuisine located inside the District, but now there’s a James Beard Foundation Award finalist — plus more high-profile restaurants still on the way.
D.C.’s Filipino kitchens have attracted attention from national media.And a growing wave of chefs and restaurateurs continue working to push the culinary boundaries behind staples such as crispy lumpia or zesty adobo.
Why are so many Filipino restaurants opening right now? Perhaps the question should be: Why weren’t there more Filipino restaurants around before?
The D.C. area has long had a significant community of Filipino immigrants. Rita Cacas, an archivist dedicated to preserving the history of Filipino-Americans in the area, credits the modern Filipino food boom in part to changing generational attitudes. A native Washingtonian whose father left the Philippines for the United States in 1929, Cacas remembers a Georgetown restaurant called Manila.
“It was a fancy white tablecloth restaurant, and my mother would always say, ‘It’s not good — it’s too fancy!’” she says.
That’s a common sentiment in an older generation of immigrants who were more likely to try and assimilate than stand out in a new country — and less likely to support Filipino cuisine in a fine dining format. Much like the chifa-style stir frys Peruvian-run rotisserie chicken restaurants often tucked into their side items, or the Lao dishes pioneering chef Seng Luangrath first introduced alongside more familiar Thai offerings at her restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia, Cacas says Filipino food has long been available in D.C., just in a more modest guise.
Myka Oconer, manager of Ballston’s Bistro 1521, explains, “Our people grew up with restaurants in the turo-turo [“point-point”] style” — casual establishments where customers select from a variety of pre-cooked food kept in warming trays. Oconer is part of the current crop of hospitality professionals working to bring Filipino food out from the shadows of family feasts and carry-out steam tables.
Many of the young ambassadors of Filipino cuisine were born in the Philippines, like Paolo Dungca, chef de cuisine at the highly anticipated Asian restaurant Kaliwa. It’s Eat Good Food Group’s debut it D.C., currently scheduled to open in the newly renovated Wharf this March.
Dungca is part of a younger generation that has come to America not just to blend in but to share their heritage and cuisine with everyone.
“I think our cuisine is the perfect melting pot of cultures. We were colonized by the Spaniards. There’s influence from the Chinese, the Americans, the Japanese, and the Malay trade from the south,” Dungca tells Eater.
Some of the Filipino dishes Dungca and co-founder Cathal Armstrong have been refining for the menu include: a ceviche-like seafood dish known as kinilaw that Armstrong says will likely feature kanpachi; fried pork belly dish lechon kawali; pork liver-based sauce mang tomas; pork blood-spiked stew dinuguan; and a vinegar-driven adobo featuring caramelized garlic.
Kristina Villavicencio, who ran the Filipino supper club Timpla with Dungca and her sister Katrina, came to the United States when she was five years old. For her and other Filipino entrepreneurs, food is a way to share culture.
”I’m proud of the sacrifice our parents made,” she says. ”I want to show it off.” Villavicencio names another factor in the popularity of the cuisine: Instagram. The hashtag #filipinofoodmovement, started by an organization specifically formed to champion the cuisine, has helped educate with images of everything from traditional dishes to such tongue-in-cheek creations as single-serving flan shaped like the Wu-Tang Clan logo.
One of the key figures in the burgeoning Filipino Food Movement is chef Yana Gilbuena. Born in the Philippines, she immigrated to San Francisco and in recent years has brought her popular kamayan pop-ups to all 50 states and the District; she bills New York’s seven-year-old Filipino bistro Maharlika as the spark that lit the fuse on this boom. While Brooklyn’s Purple Yam has tried to turn Filipino food into fine dining since the 1990s, Gilbuena calls Maharlika, “a catalyst ... that spurred a lot of Filipino restaurateurs, not just in New York but in Los Angeles.” Gilbuena is bringing her pop-up dinners (think: mushroom sisig, and fried rice laced with garlic) back to Mess Hall from Thursday, March 15 to Sunday, March 18. She’s also promoting her forthcoming book, No Forks Given, which consists of recipes and anecdotes for each of the stops made on her culinary tour.
According to Gilbuena, it’s important to note that the recent boom is not in Filipino food but in Filipino-American food.
“Because I am an immigrant,” she says, “my version of Filipino food is definitely going to be very different from a Filipino-American who was born and raised in America and has never touched the Philippines.” But she’s okay with that, as each restaurant demonstrates the particular identity of its owner’s experience. “You’re telling your story, and food is the medium for you to tell your story.”
Looking back, Kaliwa contributes the narrative started by a long chain of trailblazers. First out of the gates in D.C.’s recent burst of Filipino restaurant openings was Purple Patch, which debuted on March 2015 in a 150-seat space. The Mount Pleasant eatery melds traditional Filipino dishes such as braised pork sinigang and a vegetarian adobo featuring eggplant with Americanized fare like sliders dressed with papaya salad and banana ketchup.
“I’m just cooking the food I grew up on and putting a little twist of my own,” Purple Patch owner Patrice Cleary, who was born in the Philippines to a Filipino mother and an American father, says of her menu writing.
Purple Patch’s success has come about largely through word of mouth and receptiveness to Cleary’s brand of hospitality. “I educate people about Filipino food, and people are genuinely excited about it,” she tells Eater. Her core offerings include bagoong fried rice, flavored with shrimp paste and the garlic-infused Filipino sausage longanisa. At brunch, she serves a sizzling sisig featuring a generous portion of chopped pork belly served on a bed of garlic rice and topped with an egg. She says such creations share some similarities to American dishes, which perhaps helps diners explore the cuisine.
The undisputed star of the Filipino food renaissance in D.C. is critically acclaimed Bad Saint (3226 11th St NW), the neighborhood gem restaurateurs Nick Pimentel and Genevieve Villamora opened in September 2015.
Bon Appetit magazine named the intimate 24-seat eatery the second-best new restaurant in the country in 2016; it continues to draw lines out the door today. The same year Michelin designated it a Bib Gourmand — a nod to affordable dining spots that didn’t sit well with Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema, who felt the restaurant deserved a higher honor. “[it’s surely the country’s best Filipino restaurant,” he argued.
Chef and James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalist Tom Cunanan delivers superior variations on such Filipino mainstays as pancit bihon as well as more adventurous dishes such as tuna jaw. Seafood lovers know to order the fettuccine wok-fried with crab fat and topped with buttery uni when available, vegetarians can indulge in adobo stews stocked with turmeric-spiced cauliflower and squash, while adventure seekers should keep an eye out for dishes showcasing offal such as oxtail and beef tripe.
Ballston’s Bistro 1521 is the newest entry from the hospitality vets behind now-shuttered Bistro 7107 in Crystal City. 7107 refers to the number of islands that make up the Philippines, while 1521 is the year Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first stepped foot on the islands. Oconer says that the move to Ballston was partly to take advantage of a new and larger space — in this case a recently closed Applebee’s.
Because of that strategic move, its capacity is nearly ten times greater than perpetually packed Bad Saint. With 7,000 square feet, Bistro 1521 can serve more than 200 guests, a major upgrade from the 60-seat Bistro 7107. Oconer, who’s also an artist, has decorated the restaurant with her acrylic paintings, including a portrait of José Rizal, an activist whose 1886 novel Noli me Tangere (Touch me Not) was an impassioned indictment of what was then Spanish rule in the Philippines.
The restaurant serves its own bagooong fried rice with generous portions of lechon, the deep-fried pork belly that is a staple of the cuisine. There’s also grilled squid, assorted noodle dishes, braised oxtails, and special orders of the family-style pork belly roll dubbed porchetta.
Meanwhile, the cafeteria at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception occasionally caters to its large Filipino constituency by serving weekly specials of pancit and adobo.
Filipinos have long known their cuisine to be accessible, comforting, and at times adventurous. As the number of Filipino restaurants in the region reaches a critical mass, nearly everyone is within reach of the culture’s signature warmth and hospitality.
- Here Are D.C.’s 2018 James Beard Foundation Awards Semifinalists [EDC]
- Bad Saint Is One of the 38 Essential Restaurants in America [EDC]
- Announcing Michelin’s 2018 Big Gourmands for D.C. [EDC]
- Ambitious Filipino Bistro 1521 Debuts in Ballston [EDC]
- Bad Saint is the #2 Best New Restaurant in America 2016 [Bon Appetit]
- Purple Patch review: Where the spark of Filipino cooking charms [Washington Post]
- Beholding the Magnificence of D.C.’s Southeastern Asian Dining Scene [E]