Trend Watch: Filipino Food Heats Up

Long overshadowed by other Southeast Asian cuisines, Filipino food finally moves to the forefront.

Filipinos have been immigrating to the United States in large numbers for more than a century. Today, there are nearly two million living in the country, with more than half of them settled in California.

But Filipino food has been relatively slow to catch on—especially compared to Thai, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cuisines. 

That may be because Filipino food is so hard to describe, says Joanne Boston, a writer turned advocate for the Filipino Food Movement, which promotes Filipino cuisine. Start with a tropical fruit and fish backbone, throw in some Spanish influence like pork and vinegar, stir in some Chinese noodles and soy sauce, and you start to get the idea. 

Family loyalty is also strong. Many Filipinos still think their mom is the best cook, says Boston, so they prefer to go out for other types of food.

That may be changing. Around the U.S., Filipino chefs strive to pair homeland touches and techniques with foods more familiar to Americans—wings in adobo sauce, waffles with ube (purple sweet potato) ice cream, fries cooked with Spam and served with banana ketchup (no tomatoes, please) on the side.

“In some people’s views, it may be a little watered down. But if it’s a gateway dish, why not?” says chef Yana Gilbuena, who started a pop-up Filipino food project, SALO Series, in March 2014. The project has now touched down in every state and most of Canada. 

Today, Filipino chefs and others who have fallen for the flavors collaborate with each other more than ever, networking and hosting pop-ups in different cities to introduce diners to new dishes. “There used to be this belief that we can’t support each other,” Boston says. “But this generation, they like to feed off of each other’s energies.”

The customers are changing, too. “Kids now, they’re trying halo halo [a multilayer dessert cake], they’re trying kinilaw [Filipino seviche],” says Boston.

It also probably doesn’t hurt that Anthony Bourdain and his Parts Unknown team recently hooked up with a Manila-based rock band to point him to the best street-made sisig (stir-fried pork bits, hot pepper, and vinegar, topped with a runny egg)—the ultimate in comfort/hangover/breakfast food.

As Americans become more familiar with Filipino food, there will no doubt be more demand for ube, sisig, and halo halo. 

Here are four cities where you can get those dishes and more right now:

Washington, D.C.: Four Filipino restaurants opening here in a year ought to be a sign. At Bad Saint, a tiny gem of a restaurant, it’s first-come, first-served. Still, diners stand in line for the pancit (stir-fried noodles) and the tuna jaw. At Purple Patch, guests brunch on ube pancakes, which are as bright as anything Prince ever wore.

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Ube takes ice cream and cupcake form at Purple Patch restaurant in Washington, D.C. 

Los Angeles: The Filipino community has always been well represented in the kitchens in L.A., cooking the foods of other nations, but now these chefs are coming into their own. At Belly and Snout, Warren Almedia takes American classics for a Filipino spin, pairing grilled cheese with pork or chicken adobo. Recently moving from pop-up supper club into a new brick and mortar space, Irenia, run by Ryan Garlitos, offers an ever changing menu.

New York: Manila Social Club is the mack daddy of the many Filipino restaurants in Brooklyn. Aside from adaptive classics, like duck pancit, Björn DelaCruz has created a buzz with a hundred-dollar doughnut, laced with ube mousse and Cristal champagne. 

Chicago: There’s a small but growing Filipino community here, and you can’t go wrong with the strategy at Uncle Mike’s Place: breakfast all day. Try the bangus, a dish of boneless, marinated milkfish with garlic fried rice—topped with an egg, of course.