Filipino food: The next big thing in Asian cuisine?

05/11/2014 12:00 AM

05/11/2014 2:44 PM

The forecast of national culinary trends shows a clear movement on its radar: Filipino food is poised to become the latest craze.

Celebrity chef Alan Zimmern declared as much in People magazine, placing Filipino cuisine right after the now ubiquitous Cronut as the next big thing to take hold of the country’s taste buds.

Other publications have made similar pronouncements, including USA Today and Details magazine. After all, the Asian, Spanish and Mexican influences found in Filipino cuisine make the food seem both familiar yet adventurous and new.

You’d think Sacramento would be way ahead of the national taste-makers in terms of Filipino food. According to the 2010 census, Filipinos rank as Sacramento County’s largest Asian ethnic group at 41,500 residents (Chinese ranks second at 39,000 residents). In Elk Grove, nearly 30 percent of the population is Filipino.

The Filipino Fiesta of Sacramento draws up to 8,000 folks during its annual celebrations in early June at the Jose Rizal Community Center (10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 8; 7320 Florin Mall Drive, Sacramento).

But for most of us, finding Filipino restaurants around the area takes some planning.

They’re not like sushi joints, the apparent standard for strip malls, or the ubiquitous Vietnamese pho spots that populate stretches of Broadway or Stockton Boulevard. Filipino restaurants have yet to enter much of the mainstream conversation about Sacramento’s food culture.

“(Filipino cuisine) is like a secret,” said Roy Machado, a local Filipino who was raised in south Sacramento. “Everyone talks about it, especially at parties, but it’s still a hidden food.”

Most Filipino eateries in town are humble mom-and-pop style businesses, serving steam trays with egg roll-like lumpia, pancit rice noodles, fried fish and other specialties. Filipino restaurants with table service are few. Most operate in the turo turo style, or “point point”: Grab a tray (or to-go box), ponder the foods presented in a cafeteria-like setting, and point to the ones you like.

A night of Filipino fine dining would mean a trip to the Bay Area, with such restaurants as Kuta Bistro and its “modern Filipino fare.”

Attic, a Filipino fusion restaurant in San Mateo, offers such dishes as “adobo wing lollipops,” plus the cubed beef dish salipcao with an optional bone marrow pairing.

But even in the big cities, Filipino restaurants tend to be homespun affairs and often hard to find.

“We have good food but most people like the informal presentation,” said Roselie Crandall, who serves on the Filipino Fiesta of Sacramento’s planning committee. “Very few (Filipinos) like to dress up and have a sit-down dinner for special occasions. There’s not so much for fine dining. I wish there was more.”

To find the heart of Sacramento’s Filipino food culture, head to an area not far from Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento.

Start at the strip mall

Near the corner of Mack Road and Center Parkway, you’ll spot a strip mall that caters to the Filipino community. The shopping center includes TM Meat Market, which carries cuts specific for Filipino cooking including kambing (goat), and can special order entire pigs for lechon – the Filipino version of a pig roast.

Seafood City remains the strip mall’s anchor tenant, a Filipino supermarket that also offers ready-to-eat foods from its Grill City counter, and a Jollibee, a popular Filipino fast-food franchise known for its fried chicken and sweet spaghetti.

A neighboring business recently added a new set of Filipino food options. Chelo opened in February with an original intention of specializing in halo-halo – colorful Filipino shaved ice drinks with such ingredients as buko (young coconut), ube (purple yam) and ice cream. Chelo introduced a food menu in March that focuses on silog, or Filipino breakfast plates that include garlic rice, egg and meat or fish.

“The food took off more than the drinks, which was surprising,” said Tina Lim, a co-owner of Chelo. “The customers are telling us they’ve been looking for something like this. We get a huge influx at lunch because everyone wants the food.”

Silog breakfasts – basically a Filipino version of steak and eggs – are fairly easy for outsiders to comprehend. Other Filipino dishes share the same names as some Mexican food staples, including menudo and chicharrones.

The Philippines encompass more than 7,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, and its cuisine reflects a wide range of influences. Early trade with China introduced new dishes to the Philippines, including lumpia and pancit. Spanish colonization in the 16th century brought garlic and tomato to Filipino cooking, along with such dishes as arroz caldo (rice soup) and flan. Given that the Spanish managed the Philippines through New Spain (later known as Mexico), Filipino and Mexican cuisine share crossovers with adobo, menudo and other dishes.

Many of these foods are served down the street from Seafood City, at Sari Sari Buffet on Bruceville Road.

There, customers are greeted by a sign on the wall that declares “Pinoy Power” and photos of boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao and other Filipino athletes. Filipinos often refer to themselves informally as “Pinoys” or “Pinays,” and Sari Sari shows its cultural pride.

But the food is the focus. Buffet offerings might include savory beef stew kaldereta, plenty of pancit, the sautéed pork dish binagoongan and a dessert with mochi-like bilo bilo and coconut cream. Co-owner Riza Icmat had previously run a catering business before opening Sari Sari Buffet in November. The eatery has become a favorite among the community.

“Filipino food is so good,” said Crandall, before taking a bite at Sari Sari. “But most people don’t know where to find it.”

Why the low profile?

So why aren’t Filipino restaurants more prominent in Sacramento?

Consider that Asian ingredients and dishes have ranked as go-tos with foodies over the past few years, be it Sriracha hot sauce, ramen, pork buns or Vietnamese pho. Thai restaurants have become an integral part of the region’s landscape, from the central city to downtown Davis.

Filipino food appeals to plenty of taste buds. Sweetness ranks as a prominent flavor note, be it through a barbecued pork marinade or the combination of sugar and banana ketchup that’s a hallmark of spaghetti served at Filipino birthday parties.

In addition, increased interest in adventurous eating – a la Zimmern’s “Bizzare Foods” Travel Channel show – and nose-to-tail dining pair well with Filipino food. Think of balut, a semi-poached fetal duck egg that’s a popular street food in the Philippines. Traditional versions of papaitan stew contain goat innards and bile as a souring agent.

Machado, who works in real estate, believes local Filipino business owners are partly to blame for the cuisine’s low profile.

“They always market to what’s most comfortable, which is their own people,” Machado said. “If someone was ever to open a Filipino restaurant in midtown or downtown, it would blow up. State workers would love pancit and lumpia.”

But Machado says the Filipino community, which began to coalesce in Sacramento during the 1960s, remains largely insular. Many won’t invest in businesses outside their neighborhoods or gear their enterprises to a wider clientele.

In terms of restaurants, the running joke in the Filipino community is there are few eateries because everyone’s busy at home cooking for the party. Filipino celebrations are known for their copious amounts of food.

Machado remains hopeful that Filipino food will one day get its wider due.

“In other parts of the city there’s Thai food, Japanese, Afghan, Ethopian – but no Filipino,” Machado said. “It just takes one brave soul to say, ‘All right, let’s take a chance in another area.’ And it goes from there.”

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