The sizzling sisig at Bistro 1521 arrives on a cast-iron platter, its juices bubbling along the edges of a pan piled high with chopped pig’s ears and pork belly, whole Thai chile peppers and more. The preparation is an echo from the 1970s — and a food stall in Angeles City in Central Luzon, where a vendor named Lucia Lagman Cunanan transformed a pale dish of boiled pork offal and vinegar into a browned-and-juicy grill plate, with added onions and liver. Her sisig would eventually become a bar-food staple in the Philippines, as common as chicken wings at American watering holes.
The Ballston restaurant’s take on sisig, without even trying, is a trend monger: With its use of pig ears and beef liver, the dish embraces offcuts, those ugly beauties of the nose-to-tail movement. With its intemperate outlay of deep-fried pork belly, it leans on an ingredient that no mere mortal (or at least chef over the past decade) can resist. And with its breezy incorporation of international flavors — pork from Spain, hot peppers from the Americas and soy from China — the dish is the very definition of multicultural.
The sizzling sisig is also just damn delicious, its textures as essential as its flavors. The chewiness. The stickiness. The crunch. Without these elements, the dish’s power trio of spice, acid and richness would soon grow as exhausting as a Green Day playlist on endless repeat.
Bistro 1521 comes from Manny Tagle and Solita Wakefield, the same principals behind Bistro 7107 in Crystal City, which they shut down last year. A few months later, the pair resurfaced in Ballston — in a space formerly occupied by an Applebee’s — under a new handle. The identity change, Wakefield tells me, is easily explained: Bistro 7107 took its name from the number of islands that compose the Philippine archipelago.
But “they found 600 more islands,” Wakefield says. She’s close. Last year, the government announced it had discovered another 534 islands, bringing the total to 7,641. Buh-bye, Bistro 7107.
Now named after the year that explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines — and would soon die there in a tribal clash — Bistro 1521 marks another advancement of Filipino food in America. This place is not a compact storefront tucked into some lonely corner of a strip mall. Nor is it a chef-driven hideaway with a long line and an equally lengthy list of awards. No, Bistro 1521 is something else altogether: It’s confirmation that Filipino cuisine has moved squarely into the suburban mainstream, a sprawling 220-seat restaurant located steps away from a Macy’s and a Westin hotel.
While it might seem odd for a Filipino restaurant to align itself with a Portuguese explorer — at a time when Columbusing carries such a strong whiff of Eurocentric racism — the connection subtly underscores a hard truth about the Philippines: Its food has been influenced by its many occupiers and trade partners. Spain. The United States. India. China. Even Mexico via the Spanish viceroyalty in Acapulco.
As with the country that informs the place, Bistro 1521 can be difficult to explain in a concise, declarative sentence. It has many moving parts, some of which are not immediately obvious to the casual diner. There are lunch, brunch and all-day menus, but there’s also a selection of daily specials, mostly fusion dishes that combine influences from Mexico and the Philippines. Then, if the weather cooperates on Friday and Saturday evenings, there is a selection of Filipino street foods available on the patio, including balut, the fertilized-duck-egg embryo that American tourists love to treat as a dare, not a cultural delicacy. The only way I found out about the daily specials and street food was via Wakefield. During a phone call. After I had already made my visits to Bistro 1521.
Clearly, the communication between server and diner has room to improve.
Still, I found plenty to love among the readily available menus. The crispy pata looks like something curled up and died right before being submerged in the deep fryer, but it’s actually a section of pig leg and trotter, first boiled and then fried. The pata makes for fine eating, sort of like pork brittle, both crispy and chewy. The pinoy curry reveals the Indian influence on Filipino cooking, its brothlike sauce concealing pieces of dark-meat chicken perfumed with the spices of the Subcontinent.
The server had warned me that the pinoy curry packed a punch, but it was a lap dog compared with the anghang pancit, an egg-noodle dish with beef, which chef Amy Genayas laces with a housemade sauce that’s a riff on Sichuan chile oil. Do not, under any circumstance, underestimate her sauce. I practically tackled the waitress when my water glass ran dry and the fire in my mouth threatened to spread to vital organs. Once I cooled down, I could take pleasure in the supple chew of the pancit’s noodles, too, which is more than I can stay for the brittle cellophane strands in my palabok pancit. They had the texture of noodles left on the shelf long after their expiration date.
The sinigang na baboy may be the best thing on the menu. It’s a bowl loaded down with pork ribs and sections of eggplant, then carpeted with watercress. It’s only after you dig beneath the surface that do you discover the real treasure: a pork broth spiked with tamarind, its sourness almost electric. This soup has body, heat, acid and even a sweetness from God knows where. The dish practically cries for a cocktail, and the ideal one is the Usok, a heady mixture of mezcal, lemon, honey and smoked-tea syrup.
What else? What else? The lumpiang sariwa, or fresh spring rolls, would have impressed me more with fresher romaine leaves wrapped in those gossamer pancakes. The longsilog from the brunch menu pairs a fried egg with custom-made Filipino sausages, these little crisped-up logs that are so sweet and semi-garlicky that they may be the truest sign yet that Filipino food has conquered America: They’re so tasty they may make you forget about bacon.
900 N. Glebe Road, No. 100, Arlington, 703-741-0918, bistro1521.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Ballston-MU, with a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $6 to $20 for appetizers, soups and salads. $10 to $85 for noodle dishes, entrees and grill platters.