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Pinoy Noir: Is Filipino Food in Danger Before It Even Gets Big? 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2016
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Since the 1980s, Filipinos have been the largest single ethnicity of Asian-Americans in California, more numerous than Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans combined. Yet Filipino cuisine, its pancits and sisigs and adobos rich with regional variations, remains more or less confined to the margins in San Francisco, represented mostly by a few food trucks — albeit ones with loyal followings — and restaurants clustered south of the city proper.

Pampalasa, a promising "kamayan-optional" restaurant — meaning that eating with your hands is not the only option — recently announced that it will close in August, barely a year into its existence, owing to a rent increase. Apart from losing its gulay (tempura bok choi, sweet roasted eggplant, and sweet potato slices with coconut sauce) and tortang talong (grilled eggplant omelet with sautéed spinach), it's especially sad because Pampalasa falls squarely inside the forthcoming Filipino Cultural Heritage District created as part of an agreement that Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the neighborhood, struck with the builders of a controversial housing development called 5M.

California's Filipinos are "one of the biggest communities outside of Asia but we're the last to get a 'town,' " says Carl Foronda, the chef at 1760. Filipino-American himself, he elaborates on his theory of why Chinatowns are relatively common while "Filipinotowns" are not: "They were forced to adapt quicker and assimilated more. They're more prone to fly under-the-radar, 'cause they don't want to cause any ripples. They came here for the American dream and it's not, 'This is our food, and it's in your face'; it's very 'Oh, did you like that?' It's a way to cater to your surroundings without disturbing the natural forces. Most ethnic groups will compromise their own food to cater to someone else. That's why the burrito was invented."

He and I are eating oxtail kari kari and dinuguan, two stews made with various bits of offal — and blood sausage, in the latter case — along with an egg noodle pancit dish, dousing our rice liberally in vinegary chili water. We're at our first stop, JT Restaurant on Mission Street in SoMa, a bright and casual place inside the Mint Mall whose husband-and-wife proprietors are friendly and solicitous, along with Foronda's publicist and a photographer, plus chefs Suzette Gresham of Acquerello, 1760's sister restaurant, and Banks White of The Keystone, whose menu is inflected by flavors from across Southeast Asia.

Gresham agrees with Foronda's assessment that the Filipino restaurant crawl we're embarking on has one main purpose: gaining familiarity with a cuisine that may vanish forever.

"We're about to lose the subculture," she says. "I don't want to see that, because I know from Italian cuisine, any immigrant that comes to America gets absorbed in the mainstream, and they start to change things to make it palatable to us here, versus holding out. I want to see it before it's not too diluted yet, to see the mom-and-pop places on the bottom rung, and get a feel for that essence. It's important to me."

For his part, White is curious about sussing out the subtleties between Filipino food in San Francisco and on the Peninsula versus the parts of the Bay Area he's more familiar with. Foronda "asked me if I wanted to come along, because I love Filipino food," he says. "But I know more in Napa and Vallejo."

I quickly realize that Filipino food — inexpensive, communal, cooked by aunties who may have a specialty like monkfish or tripe soup that they bring to every family party — faces several dilemmas. One is how new restaurants might open in an increasingly unaffordable city and make authentic food that not only pleases first-generation immigrants' palates but is also priced for their budgets. "Dumbing itself down" to woo non-Filipinos is also a risk. Yet another issue might be a little less crucial for the preservation of Filipino culture, but it's tricky nonetheless: Could there be a high-end Filipino restaurant that attracts a predominantly Filipino clientele, or would it inevitably sacrifice authenticity to attract hipsters and techies?

Foronda and White largely concur: It's probably not going to happen in S.F. anytime soon.

"This is comfort food," White says, "but if you can elevate it, it'd be worth checking out."

"Filipinos are very frugal people," Foronda says, "and they're going to stick to their own and buy their own food. I think it'd be hard to pull off, but I agree with Banks: If you do something very new and interesting and worth going to, it could work, but I just don't see it in San Francisco."

It's not just a question of money and who has it. Taste preferences play a role, too. As White, whose restaurant sits on the ground floor of a hotel, puts it, "I got a community of Filipino housekeepers, and every time they come in, you just know the meat better be well-cooked."

As we settle into our table at Karilagan in South San Francisco for some sitsarong bulaklak — a dish of pig intestines that's described as "pork ruffle croutons" — Gresham takes a serrated knife to the rarefied food world's implicit ethnocentrism.

"When you're at a culinary school, the European chef wasn't cooking for slaves or people who worked in the field," she says. "When we still had our working ethnicity, they had to protect themselves and the only way to do that was to cook the shit out of whatever you're going to eat. There was no refrigeration, and it wasn't the best cuts. My grandmother cooked the hell out of it, 'cause it wasn't fancy."

Eating at his parents' house, Foronda says, can be a reality check of sorts. "It's going to be more overcooked than I'd like," he says, "but at the same time, it's going to be nostalgic deliciousness as opposed to technical deliciousness. So it's like, 'Oh, I'm home, and it's fine.' "

In spite of being a gaggle of food professionals, we make a rookie mistake: eating until we're almost full at the first stop, then stuffing ourselves at the second. By the time we roll up at the Lucky Chances Casino in Daly City to eat at Cafe Colma inside, sharing a couple desserts is pretty much all we can manage. It's after 9 p.m. when we arrive, and for whatever reason — the recently finished Warriors game, maybe — the diner swells with patrons as we take turns spooning up some buko pandan (a gelatin salad with a creamy base not unlike rice pudding) and mango ice cream. Foronda fondly recalls a time in his youth when he and his friends were kicked out of here.

Is this food like what you'd get in the Philippines, I ask, or is it already adulterated?

It's pretty close, Foronda says, noting that what constitutes Filipino food is itself changing as the country fills with Russian bakeries catering to expats and its food magazines broaden their reach. His food doesn't have to be a "biographical reflection" of himself to feel authentic.

"Not all my food is Filipino, but it influences what I cook and what I eat and what I want to serve," he says.

"Is that the measurement, though?" Gresham asks. "If it tastes good? Does your conscience bother you? Where's the line between 'This is a good adaptation' and 'This is bastardization?' "

"The rules constrict you so much that you're not having fun anymore," White says. "Now I have to be authentic? I just want to cook."

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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