When they were putting together the Filipino-American fast food menu at Pogiboy, a new food hall stall that opens downtown today inside the Block D.C., chefs Tom Cunanan and Paolo Dungca wanted to draw from a deep well of nostalgia for drive-thrus, use ingredients that reflect the ever-evolving food scene in the Philippines, and reflect both of those influences with classical techniques like they used to do the last time they teamed up, at a game-changing restaurant that was the hottest dining attraction in town for years. Besides introducing some dishes that are begging to be photographed — see the riff on a bloomin’ onion served with a chile-crab fat mayo — Pogiboy marks a professional reunion for the opening chefs at Bad Saint, the nationally known Filipino spot where Cunanan won a James Beard award in 2019.
“It was just me and him when we first opened that place,” says Dungca, Cunanan’s sous chef in 2015. “We’re back cooking again after five years. It’s kind of nice.”
Their latest collaboration pays respect to a couple of fast food giants: Jollibee, a source of Filipino pride all over the world, and Bob’s Big Boy, where Cunanan and his six siblings were regulars during their suburban Maryland childhood. The mascots for both brands have sentimental value for with Cunanan, who describes the Pogiboy cartoon on the new restaurant’s branding as a symbol of his own childhood.
Like Jollibee, Pogiboy offers buckets of fried chicken, but a seasoning mix that includes tamarind powder and long pepper mimics the flavor of sinigang, a sour soup. Manila-based chef JP Angelo clued the partners into the sinigang chicken trend in the Southeast Asian archipelago with a voicemail on Cunanan’s phone. The accompanying gravy sounds straight up French: the chefs make a rich stock out of roasted chicken bones and add it to a brown roux.
Pogiboy sells two burgers. A classic American double with cheese uses beef from Roseda Farm in Maryland and a special sauce that folds in cornichons and cane vinegar. A tocino burger, a handheld shoutout to Charles Olalia of recently closed Ma’am Sir in Los Angeles, presents a patty formed out the sweet Filipino-style bacon and longganisa sausage, all topped with grilled pineapple and atchara, a green papaya pickle.
Pogiboy’s version of Baltimore pit beef comes on an onion roll with raw onion, burnt onion horseradish sauce, and a soy and calamansi (Filipino citrus) bistec sauce. It’s named the “Eugene” after one of Cunanan’s brothers who died in November. They bickered as kids but grew close after the chef opened Bad Saint, and a pit beef sandwich from Annapolis was the last meal they shared.
A blooming “sam-Pogi-ta” is play on sampaguita, a jasmine flower that reminded Cunanan and Dungca of the famous Outback Steakhouse appetizer. Both that snack and Pogiboy’s “fiesta” spaghetti, with banana ketchup and bright red hot dogs from Filipino brand Tender Juicy, reflect Cunanan’s wish for a menu full of “quirky” options, just like Jollibee’s. On a 2019 trip to the Philippines, despite having local chefs show him around, Cunanan says he popped into Jollibee every day.
“You walk into Jollibee, and everyone who works at Jollibee, they’re just extremely happy to be there,” Cunanan says. “It’s like everybody’s happy place.”
Both Cunanan and Dungca say the COVID-19 pandemic gave them perspective they were missing, eventually bringing them together. Cunanan left Bad Saint in August, a couple months after the restaurant reopened for weekend takeout. But the break had already made him rethink a life where he felt personally responsible to live up to the expectations of diners who would travel from all over the country to try his food. He had a chunk of money in the bank because he was always working. In 2019 he had just started to allow himself to step away and travel.
“It was so crazy,” Cunanan says. “I have this problem with control. People are waiting in line for two or three hours. If I’m not there, it’s not worth their time.”
Cunanan says he felt the pressure of the job wearing on him every day, and working in a 600-square-foot space with no room for a walk-in fridge “created a lot of health issues, claustrophobia.”
“The pandemic was like a double-edged sword,” he says. “It was terrible, but at the same time it gave me time to rest and collect my thoughts.”
Leaving his job gave Cunanan time for a handful of pop-ups, and he jumped at the chance to join a group of chefs in October for a star-studded Filipino takeout event run out of the Block. Dungca was on the same roster. After spending about a year at Bad Saint, he had gone on to work in fine dining under prominent D.C. chef Cathal Armstrong (Restaurant Eve, Kaliwa), opened all-day cafe ABC Pony for Erik Bruner-Yang, and briefly worked on the R&D team for legendary Chinese chef Peter Chang’s new Baltimore restaurant, Ni Hao. A Filipino dinner series at Tiki TNT on the Southwest Waterfront recently helped him reconnect with his roots.
After the pop-up at the Block, Dungca says leaders the food hall approached him and Cunanan about working together while they each develop plans for their own restaurants. They had been talking about getting back together for years, anyway.
“The pandemic is kind of a blessing in disguise, at least for me, because I was able to refocus and reconnect with some friends like Tom, and all of the sudden we’re working together,” Dungca says. “I think it’s an interesting dynamic to be honest. I don’t know what to expect.”
Pogiboy opens Wednesday through Sunday from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Block DC (1110 Vermont Avenue NW)