Nearly three years ago, before most Americans could pronounce sinigang, let alone find a place to enjoy the sour soup, Andrew Zimmern predicted Filipino cuisine would soon become the darling of diners who collect restaurant experiences like seashells on the beach. If you survey the dining landscape today, you might wonder whether the “Bizarre Foods” host moonlights as a soothsayer.
From Los Angeles to New York, Filipino cooking has expanded well beyond its no-frills “point-point” eateries (the suburban outlets where diners point to steam-table dishes they want) to more refined restaurants that cater to diners who want wine, not soda, with their meals. D.C. area chefs and restaurateurs, in particular, have taken an interest in Filipino food. Three full-service restaurants, including a fine-dining room overseen by a James Beard Award nominee, now specialize wholly or in part in the cuisine; three more are on the way.
Zimmern is not surprised, nor is he particularly impressed with his prophecy skills. As a globe-trotting food hunter, Zimmern has a rare vantage point from which he can monitor world cuisines. He knows what food is bubbling just below the mainstream. Chefs tell him about it. He may even see them tinkering with dishes to achieve that delicate balance of authenticity and American marketability.
“I had said to some people, ‘If there was a great chef executing Filipino food at a high level, everyone else would line up behind them,’ ” Zimmern says.
Which is exactly what chefs have done since Zimmern made his prediction in 2012: The TV host singles out Paul Qui at Qui in Austin and Cristina Quackenbush at Milkfish in New Orleans as two pioneers willing to take a chance on Filipino food. Others point to Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan at the Purple Yam in Brooklyn or the young owners behind Maharlika and Jeepney in the East Village as the trailblazers who eased American diners into the Filipino fold. Yet regardless of who gets credit, one pertinent question remains: What has made Filipino cooking different from other Asian cuisines, which found acceptance much earlier in mainstream American dining rooms?
Knee-jerk pundits like to point fingers at balut and dinuguan, but these two are just fall-guy dishes: The former is a fertilized duck-egg embryo, something of a cross between an aphrodisiac and a drunken dare, and the latter is a stew of pork and offal simmered in vinegar and pig blood. But neither represents the breadth, depth and deliciousness of Filipino food any more than fried duck tongues and sliced pig ears represent the entirety of Chinese cooking. Filipino dishes, after all, not only draw inspiration from Spanish, Chinese and Malay cuisines but also channel spice, sourness and pungency, three of the trendiest flavors in American dining.
More thoughtful analysts note that as a U.S. colony in the first half of the 20th century, the Philippines assimilated countless American traits, including our primary language. Along with Tagalog, English is an official language in the Philippines. When Filipinos immigrate to the United States, then, their English-language skills allow them to blend into American work and social life without the need to cluster around “Manila towns,” similar to the Chinatowns so common to U.S. cities. Unlike Vietnamese or Chinese, they haven’t needed to open a restaurant as a way to cater to their own community, which often eats at home, or to generate income.
But that ability to disappear into American society has come with a cost, notes Nicole Ponseca, co-owner of Maharlika, a modern Filipino restaurant, and its gastropub sister, Jeepney. Filipino immigrants have struggled to have much impact on mainstream U.S. culture, especially around food and drink. The problem is compounded, Ponseca adds, by a well-documented trait: It’s called “hiya” (pronounced “hee-yah” in Tagalog), and the word translates into English as “shame” or “dishonor.” Some Filipino immigrants in America have felt a sense of hiya around their food, with its duck embryos, pig’s blood, shrimp paste and other potentially hard-to-swallow ingredients.
If you test Ponseca’s hiya theory on other Filipino Americans who are experimenting with Filipino dishes in upscale settings, they’ll generally nod their heads. “She’s right,” says Meshelle Armstrong, a Manila native who has encouraged her husband and chef, perennial Beard Award nominee Cathal Armstrong, to embrace her country’s cooking at his fine-dining flagship, Restaurant Eve in Alexandria.
“Filipinos would feel like that — that no one would like” the food, Meshelle Armstrong continues. “So they won’t do it.” And by “do it,” she means Filipinos have felt little desire to invest the time, cash and energy into building their own restaurants, assuming they’ll just be rejected.
Adds Genevieve Villamora, co-owner of Bad Saint, a homey Filipino restaurant coming this spring to Columbia Heights: “When you’re a kid and your friends are grossed out by your lunch, or when you go to the office and see a sign on the microwave telling you not to heat your stinky food there, that’s when hiya can kick in,” she e-mails.
To begin to combat these problems, Ponseca did two things: She got angry, and she got to work. Back in the late 1990s, when she was a junior advertising executive, Ponseca conducted market research on the restaurant industry. She even moonlighted in bars and restaurants, washing dishes and serving as a hostess, to learn the business. Her goal was simple and complex: to figure out how a modern Filipino eatery could be competitive in the U.S. hospitality industry, which chews up and spits out amateurs.
“I didn’t want to add to the casualties of the Filipino culinary story,” says Ponseca, perhaps thinking of the long shadow cast by Besa and Dorotan’s SoHo restaurant Cendrillon, which closed in 2009.
Her efforts paid off. Starting in early 2011, Ponseca and her partners hosted migratory pop-ups that eventually morphed into a hip Filipino restaurant in the East Village. Maharlika would pull no punches. It would serve pig ears and snout, oxtail stew flavored with peanut butter, grilled chicken feet and other Filipino staples, all sold under their Tagalog names. The New York Times offered qualified praise. The actual content of the review, of course, meant less than the fact that a mainstream newspaper paid attention to a Filipino restaurant.
“Maharlika is a gateway restaurant — an exotic excursion with a soft landing, a chance to discover an unsung cuisine without getting too down-and-dirty,” wrote Times critic Ligaya Mishan.
So why did Maharlika and, later, Jeepney strike a chord? They warmly embrace the otherness of Filipino cuisine, perhaps even fetishize it at Jeepney, where employees, instead of tiptoeing balut into the dining room, proudly shout out and parade every order to the table. It transforms hiya shame into a cacophonous ceremony. There’s even an annual balut eating contest, like the one by Nathan’s Famous, except you actually know what kind of meat you’re consuming with the Filipino dish.
The influence that these two places have had on other Filipino American restaurateurs is immeasurable.
“Jeepney and Maharlika were the inspiration for me to do this in Washington,” e-mails Nick Pimentel, co-owner of the upcoming Bad Saint on 11th Street NW. “I went to New York for a wedding not even knowing that these places existed, and a day later I came back to D.C. wanting to open a Filipino restaurant.”
Inspiration is easy; execution is not. Restaurateurs such as Pimentel, the Armstrongs and Patrice Cleary of Purple Patch, a new Filipino American spot in Mount Pleasant, have to find a way to prepare and present Pinoy food to American diners. The cuisine presents challenges: It tends to be meat-centric, making it inaccessible to vegetarians. It tends to rely on pungent flavors, like the fermented baby shrimp paste known as bagoong, which can make grown men flee a kitchen. And it tends to feature home-style cooking, with dishes served family-style without courses, which can undercut the standard operating procedures of restaurants.
Then there’s the challenge of finding a qualified chef. It’s one thing to prep a batch of chicken adobo for the steam table at a point-point joint; it’s another to develop a plated version of the vinegar-marinated chicken that can be prepared fresh for every diner who desires it. Even the most experienced home cook could have trouble keeping up with the orders, let alone managing a line of hardscrabble kitchen jockeys.
New-school Filipino restaurants have taken different approaches. Ponseca looked for a Filipino chef for seven years before opting to train a Dominican, Miguel Trinidad, on the ways of Pinoy cooking. Trinidad prepared practice dinners at Ponseca’s house and traveled to the Philippines to better understand the cuisine. Before he ever sold a single dish, he spent years learning to master the food from the archipelago.
Cleary, co-owner of Purple Patch, had far less time to scout a chef. When she and her husband, Drew, took over an organic bistro that was supposed to open in the old Tonic location, they had only two months to renovate the space and train a chef in Filipino cooking. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were actually training two chefs. Purple Patch and its opening toque parted ways less than a month after the restaurant launched in March; the kitchen is now under the guidance of sous-chef Surag Gopi, a 14-year veteran whose experience includes stints at small cafes.
But Cleary also has a secret weapon: her Filipino mother, Nemesia Hammond. Mom doesn’t actually work at Purple Patch, but she prepares hundreds of pieces of lumpia weekly at her home in Corpus Christi, Tex., freezes them and overnights the pork-and-beef spring rolls to Washington.
“I love my mother, and I want my mother to know that I appreciate her and her lumpia,” Cleary says. “I’m the only other person who knows my mother’s lumpia . . . . If I need more, I have to make it.”
Bistro 7107, named for the number of islands in the Philippines, opted to hire a consultant after its opening chef wanted to concentrate on his cooking school in Vienna, Va. The Crystal City restaurant now relies on Jessie Sincioco, one of a handful of celebrity chefs in Manila. Sincioco operates several white-tablecloth restaurants in the metro Manila area and recently cooked for a pair of VIPs: In January, she prepared her famous chocolate souffle for Pope Francis during his trip to the Philippines, and last summer, Sincioco cooked — if in absentia — for White House chef Cristeta Comerford, a Filipino American who dined at Bistro 7107 in August.
“The way we plate the food, it looks like restaurant food,” says Solita Wakefield, a co-owner and general manager of Bistro 7107. “Everything relies on how you plate the food and present it.”
Two future restaurants have built-in advantages over some of their competitors: Their chefs have Filipino roots. Tom Cunanan, chef at Bad Saint, and Cliff Wharton, chef for the forthcoming Urban Heights in Bethesda, were born in the Philippines. They grew up on lumpia, chicken adobo, sinigang (by the way, it’s pronounced “sin-ee-gong”) and rice noodle dishes like pancit palabok. No one needs to train them in the flavors of the islands.
Wharton, in fact, had introduced Filipino cooking to Washingtonians years before it became trendy. Back in the early 2000s, when he was chef de cuisine at the late TenPenh, Wharton frequently prepared lumpia, chicken adobo and bibingka (coconut rice cakes). Some of his dishes could get, well, a little cheffy. He served his lumpia with a trio of dipping sauces, including a sweet Thai chili sauce.
“It wasn’t really something that Filipinos would do with spring rolls,” he confesses.
At Urban Heights, a project from the Robert Wiedmaier Restaurant Group that’s set to open Thursday, Wharton plans to take a similar pan-Asian approach, mixing Filipino dishes with those from Korea, Vietnam, China and Thailand. In developing the menu, Wiedmaier and Wharton want to steer clear of the dreaded, and dated, “fusion” term. They prefer “contemporary Asian.”
But of all the Filipino restaurants that will soon dot the landscape, Bad Saint may have the most radical approach. Owners Pimentel and Villamora plan to open a 25-seat, chef-driven, seasonal restaurant that doesn’t put on airs or adopt an ironic tone. Their place will embrace the home, where Filipino cooking draws its inspiration and its warmth. Cunanan calls his approach a mix of new and old schools: seasonal ingredients and timeless flavors.
“We’re staying true to the soul and the essential flavors of Filipino cuisine,” Cunanan says via e-mail. “I grew up in a household where my mother had a garden and cooked Filipino food every night for dinner. When I think of the soul of Filipino food, that’s where it’s at — my mom’s cooking.”
As a child of the Philippines, Meshelle Armstrong has been an evangelist for the country’s cooking for years. The target of her zeal has often been her husband. She has pushed Cathal Armstrong repeatedly to expand Eve’s menu to include Filipino dishes, but for the most part, the chef has resisted, arguing that he wasn’t familiar or comfortable with the cuisine. That changed last fall when he made a trip to Thailand as a U.S. cultural ambassador. It wasn’t the Philippines, but it was close enough. He could finally taste ingredients fresh from the trees and soil.
“I did get an understanding of how the ingredients work and how they actually taste and why they make sense together,” Cathal Armstrong says. “Just that part made me much more comfortable cooking that kind of food.”
Not long after his trip, the chef introduced an Asian tasting menu at Eve. It was heavy on Filipino dishes such as dinuguan, pork belly barbecue and kinilaw (a kind of seviche with raw hamachi flash-marinated in the juices of lemons, limes, oranges and calamansi). The menu was supposed to be a special January promotion, but it continues to hang around Eve, as Cathal Armstrong auditions more dishes that could make the cut for his planned pan-Asian restaurant in the Wharf development along the Southwest waterfront.
The Armstrongs have been playing with names for their first D.C. restaurant, set to open in 2017. They’re considering Kaliwa, the Tagalog word for “left-handed” (which the chef is) as well as the word for “to the left” (which sounds like an apt description of the chef’s move into Filipino cooking). Come to think of it, Cathal Armstrong could be a symbol for America’s slow adoption of Pinoy cuisine.
“It’s like everything that we’ve done has been Cathal-focused, things that Cathal loves, but it’s only been recently that he’s really understood the culture of the Philippines, and he’s really embracing it,” says Meshelle Armstrong. “So he wants people to understand and know this food, especially now that he can get it into his own brain.”