This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide.
Remember when lumpia — spring rolls filled with beef and pork — represented what a lot of diners knew about Filipino food? New emissaries, including this two-floor Mount Pleasant hideaway, are helping expand our horizons (and vocabulary) with adobo and sisig. The first is braised chicken flavored with vinegar and soy sauce and fleshed out with potatoes. The second is a sputtering stir-fry of chopped pork, bird’s-eye chilies and sweet onions that play-wrestles with your tongue until you cry “uncle” — or finish off the dish, crowned with a fried egg. Sour accents get a lot of use, as in sinigang, a strapping soup crowded with braised pork, potato chunks and long green beans that doesn’t stint on the lemon juice. Veer from the Filipino dishes and you might hit a wall; Caesar salad, for instance, drowns in its Parmesan-miso dressing. The lumpia, made by the owner’s mom and flown in from her home in Texas, are exemplary. Don’t just take my recommendation. Staff at the Philippine Embassy come here for a taste of home, too.
This review was published in The Washington Post Magazine on Aug. 16, 2015.
The debris from a whole fried red snapper on my table catches the eye of the co-owner of Purple Patch in Mount Pleasant. “Would you like to take the head home?” asks Patrice Cleary. Nodding to the diners around us, she says her Filipino customers tend to get their fish extras wrapped up, for making soup at home.
We decline her invitation but ask for our remaining sisig to be packed for transport. A signature Filipino dish, the juicy stir-fry of chopped pork (shoulder and belly), aggressive birds’ eye chilies and sweet onion hits multiple pleasure points on the tongue. Abroad, “sisig” refers to snacking on something sour. At Purple Patch, vinegar and lemon juice infuse the meaty scramble, introduced by a cloud of steam and angry sputter, with serious tang.
Unless you’ve been eating under a rock, you know that sisig and dishes like it are now go-to flavors. See Bad Saint, a pop-up poised to become a restaurant in Columbia Heights, and Bistro 7107, the Crystal City retreat whose consultant is a celebrity chef in Manila. And by all means, order anything with a Filipino accent at Restaurant Eve in Old Town, where chef Cathal Armstrong has been inspired by his wife’s heritage.
Open since March, Purple Patch, co-owned by Cleary’s husband, Drew, a native Australian, takes its name from an expression used Down Under designating “a place of success” or good luck, according to Patrice. The Filipino recipes are courtesy of her mother, a caterer in Corpus Christi, Tex., while the cooking is performed by an Indian chef, Surag Gopi.
Probably the best-known Filipino dish is lumpia, spring rolls filled with beef, pork and shredded carrots and fried so that each bite resonates in your head as much as your mouth. Early in the restaurant’s life, the cigar shapes were made by Cleary’s mom, who shipped her goods to Purple Patch via FedEx. But this appetizer from “Mama Alice” became so popular, Cleary had to start making them, too. (An average of 3,000 spring rolls fly out of the kitchen each week.) The snacks come with banana ketchup, a red dipping sauce the owners get from the Philippines that dates to a time around World War II when tomatoes were hard to find and bananas were pressed into service.
The other small plates of note include fried guajillo pepper chicken wings and skewers of grilled pork. (Meat plays a prominent role in the cuisine.) The wings are a shade of red that suggests you’ll be biting into TNT, but they turn out to be more smoky than explosive. The barbecued pork reveals a fruity sweetness that comes from pineapple juice in its marinade. Both appetizers come with a dynamite papaya salad that I could eat all day. Along with the obvious julienned green papaya, you get slivers of garlic, fresh ginger, vinegar and raisins — a roller coaster of heat, shock and sweet.
With a few exceptions, Filipino food isn’t much of a candidate for beauty contests. Chicken adobo, among other entrees, looks like leftovers Instagrammed with a sepia filter. Then again, what’s wrong with brown comfort food? The soy-sauced adobo appears as a hash at brunch, along with crab fritters, the aforementioned sisig and longsilog, a popular breakfast combination of inky Filipino sausage, fried eggs and garlic fried rice. A heap of cool diced tomato on the plate adds levity and color to the rib-sticker, which stars a pork link seasoned with paprika and orange-red annatto.
Eat your way through the menu and you discover more examples of the role that sour accents play in this cooking. Tender braised pork, long green beans and potato chunks are building blocks elevated with lemon juice in the soup called sinigang (say sin-ee-gong). Soy sauce inserts itself into the conversation, too, sometimes to excess. I’m thinking now of pancit — rice noodles, sugar snap peas, cabbage and a choice of protein in a sea of salty brown sauce.
Purple Patch mixes it up on its menu. Per Drew Cleary’s wish, steak and Caesar salad make appearances, says his wife, while their 7-year-old son, Hunter, lobbied to get a hamburger on the list. The selections, in other words, aren’t straight Filipino. “I’m Irish, too,” Patrice reasons. The most serious misstep in the lineup is that Caesar, so heavily striped in Parmesan-miso dressing you can barely see the lettuce it drowns. Imagine eating a jar of mayonnaise with a single spear of romaine.
The arrival occupies the onetime home of Tonic and offers two experiences on as many floors. The main level hosts a cozy dining room set off with whitewashed brick walls adorned with renderings of fish and birds by a Filipino artist and, sprouting from planters, chives, basil and other herbs that make their way into some of the cocktails. Beneath the restaurant is a long bar with tall tables and a handful of flat-screen TVs, plus a small play area stocked with the owners’ son’s games and toys. Attention, parents: On Saturdays between 3 and 5 p.m., Purple Patch throws a happy hour for kids and their overseers. Other times, the restaurant appears to be populated with a clientele that recognizes the edible attractions as a taste of home, a community that has included the Philippine ambassador to the United States, Jose L. Cuisia Jr.
“My own little family,” says Patrice — a gracious table toucher who makes everyone feel like a member of her tribe.
Location: 3155 Mount Pleasant St. NW. 202-299-0016. www.purplepatchdc.com.
Open: Dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. daily; brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $8, main courses $10 to $24; brunch entrees $10 to $15.
Sound check: 63 decibels / Conversation is easy.