As any casual trend spotter (translation: anyone with Instagram) knows, what happens in Williamsburg never stays in Williamsburg. And so with a slew of openings—from last year’s Manila Social Club in the Brooklyn neighborhood to the more recent Pinoy-Cali incubator Lasa—Filipino cuisine has been anointed in America.
Although mom-and-pop shops have been serving Filipino staples in the U.S. for decades, this hearty and humble food is finally creeping into the mainstream, from the roving White Rabbit Truck in L.A. to the party-vibe Jeepney in Manhattan’s East Village to the revered Bad Saint in D.C. Granted, what constitutes “Filipino food” can be difficult to define. Not only is the Philippines an island country—it consists of more than 7,100 specks of land floating between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean—but its colorful history means the food “is a beautiful mutt,” says Yana Gilbuena, who was born in the Philippines but now lives in New York when she’s not traveling the world, serving regional Filipino cuisine to groups of around 30 diners for her Salo Series pop-up dinners. “We’re talking about influences from the Chinese, Arabs, Indians, Malays, Spanish, Japanese and Americans.” Put that together and you have the sweet, salty, tangy, spicy food we all want to eat. “Suddenly we’re the cool kids,” Gilbuena says. So how did a cuisine that has been in this country for more than 50 years become an overnight sensation? As American palates warm to fish-sauce funk and “other” animal bits, more people are finally ready to receive the Philippines’ particular brand of hot, tart, meaty cooking.
Gilbuena’s goal is to introduce eaters to more than “the ubiquitous trio” of adobo (vinegar-marinated meat), pancit (noodles) and lumpia (meaty egg rolls) found in most Filipino restaurants in the U.S. That said, she recommends that newbies tour the lesser-known parts of the Filipino repertoire to get a more nuanced understanding of the cuisine. Next chance you get, order tapa (cured beef), tocino (cured pork), silog (garlic fried rice with an egg) or the ultimate beer food, sisig, a sizzling pork dish made with all the humble cuts (namely pork face) that intrepid foodie dudes like to brag about eating. To get a baseline understanding, start with Gilbuena’s adobo (recipe below) and hit one of the many pop-ups now serving Filipino fare.
Some of the most adventurous neo-Filipino cooking is itinerant.
LASA in Los Angeles: Brothers Chase and Chad Valencia have a weekend residency at Unit 120, a culinary incubator in Chinatown. What you might find on the seasonal four-course prix-fixe menu: red snapper with black plums and fermented Fresno chilies, or twice-cooked pork belly with eggplant and bagoong (fermented shrimp paste). Lasa means “flavor” in Tagalog, and the Valencias are bringing it.
Food and Sh*t in Seattle: Every third Monday of the month, husband-and-wife team George “Geo” Quibuyen and Chera Amlag sell Filipino comfort food at Kraken Congee in Pioneer Square. One of this year’s spring dinners included what they call “the hottest sisig ever,” made with Trinidad scorpion chili.
Pelago in Philadelphia: Food photographer–curator Neal Santos’s mission is “to articulate Filipino culinary culture within the context of the American mid-Atlantic region.” With partners Jillian Encarnacion and Resa Mueller, he throws ticketed dinner parties in spaces around the city. One evening’s meat-themed menu featured kilawin na baka (beef tartare with ginger, chili and shallots) followed by sisig cannelloni and coconut-braised greens, prepared by chef Damon Menapace.
Chicken Adobo Sa Gata
by Yana Gilbuena
As with curry in India, there are myriad recipes for the national dish of the Philippines. This one will get you started. If you can’t find cane vinegar, Gilbuena says palm vinegar or even distilled white vinegar will do.
• ¾ cup soy sauce
• ¾ cup dark brown sugar
• ¼ cup cane vinegar
• 2 tbsp. canola oil
• 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken quarters (thighs and legs), scored
• 2 heads garlic, crushed, skins removed, roughly diced
• ½ cup water
• 2 cups coconut milk
• 3 Thai chilies (optional), roughly chopped
• Pinch of black peppercorns
• 5 bay leaves
• 4 scallions, white parts only, sliced thinly on a bias
• Steamed short-grain white rice, for serving
Mix soy sauce, sugar and vinegar in a bowl and set aside.
In a large sauté pan or wok, warm oil over medium-high heat. Sear chicken, flipping periodically, for 10 minutes or until skin browns. About five minutes in, add garlic. Add soy-vinegar mixture to the pan, then add water and coconut milk to just cover chicken. Bring mixture to a boil, then add chilies, peppercorns and bay leaves. Reduce heat. Simmer 30 to 40 minutes. Remove chicken from the pan, reserving some of the liquid. Garnish chicken with scallions and serve with rice and liquid (for spooning over the dish) on the side.