In Seattle, we start early, serving toddlers long noodles from shared bowls of steaming pho, ordering salty edamame for the kids, who eat it like it’s popcorn. We learn there’s hardly a better way to connect with friends than to meet on weekend mornings, pacing to keep warm on the chilly sidewalks outside Harbor City or Jade Garden, before we feast on dim sum. We send colleagues out on midweek banh mi sandwich runs, or we pick up (occasionally decent) sushi from the grocery stores when we can’t make it to the handful of stellar sushi bars in town. After a recent spate of openings, Seattle and the Eastside now have enough ramen joints that Japanese-food snobs have opinions about it. And there’s no escaping the current Korean food boom, the most unlikely star of which is its polarizing condiment, kimchi. Yep, fermented cabbage is trendy.
So it’s just plain odd that there aren’t more than a handful of Filipino restaurants around town.
Depending on which statistics you cite, Filipinos make up the second-largest Asian population in the country and constitute somewhere between 2 percent, but closer to 3 percent, of Seattle’s population. The math on the local numbers is tricky, because the census report doesn’t break out individual Asian populations, although Asians as a whole make up about 15 percent of King County residents, according to the 2010 Census. Plus, the Census groups Pacific Islanders together, many of whom are Hawaiians of Filipino descent, so the estimates are likely low.
Yet even the most mainstream Filipino food on our neighbors’ dinner tables—the fried pork rolls known as lumpia (a close cousin to egg rolls); pancit, the comforting, citrusy, soy-sauced stir-fry of fine noodles, veggies and pork; and adobo, the tender, slow-braised pork or chicken in a savory soy-vinegar sauce—remain largely unfamiliar. Why?
Chef Geo Quibuyen ladles it up; photo credit: Easton Richmond
“I’ve been trying to figure that out myself,” says Geo Quibuyen, aka rapper Prometheus Brown of Blue Scholars, who is also one of a small group of young Filipinos on the forefront of the local Filipino food movement. Quibuyen started the monthly pop-up Food and Sh*t with his wife, Chera Amlag, about 18 months ago in an effort to introduce more people to the flavors he grew up with. “Compared to the Bay Area, the numbers [of Filipino restaurants] here are staggeringly low.”
It’s not due to lackluster, or unfamiliar, flavor profiles: Filipino food is influenced by the cuisines of China, Malaysia and Spain, and those cuisines are well represented here.
Most chalk it up to Filipino families’ strong home-cooked food culture. To taste anything beyond the most basic Filipino dishes, “You gotta know a guy, and they gotta be celebrating something,” says Herschell Taghap, who works for Tom Douglas as social media coordinator and chef instructor at the Hot Stove Society cooking school. The thought is, why bother eating out when “your mom makes the best version of it?” he says.
Canlis sommelier Nelson Daquip, who is Filipino and was raised in Hawaii, echoes the sentiment. Filipinos don’t go out to eat Filipino food. “You go out to eat the food you can’t eat at home,” he says.
The dearth of Filipino restaurants isn’t caused by a lack of Filipino cooks, either. There are dozens of Filipinos working in Tom Douglas’ kitchens, Taghap says, adding, “For family [aka staff] meal, we do adobo all the time.”
Yet those dishes are largely kept behind the swinging kitchen doors, almost like a secret. Of course, mainstays such as Inay’s Asian Pacific Cuisine on Beacon Hill and Pike Place Market’s hidden treasure Oriental Mart Grocery (where a truly superb sinigang—the tart, sour, tamarind-laced soup—is made with wild salmon collar) have passionate devotees. But they’re almost solely serving a Filipino audience. (On one recent visit to Oriental Mart, I was the lone non-Filipino at the counter.)
Lately, though, a spirited, proud group of young Filipino chefs is working to change that.
Pork belly lechon with pea vines, potatoes, afritada sauce and mango puree from Lahi; photo credit: courtesy of Lahi
For the last three years, there’s been a buzz in the air, a sense that Filipino food is about to break out. At the heart of the movement are the chefs behind several pop-up restaurants (borrowing or renting space from established restaurants, usually hosting a dinner once a month), the best-known being Food and Sh*t, held at Inay’s (on the third Monday of the month).
“What Geo is doing [at Food and Sh*t]…,” says Daquip, pausing. “We’re on the verge of something really cool.”
What Quibuyen is doing, in large part, is cooking a clever mashup of traditional and completely inventive Filipino food. To wit: sisig (or pig’s ear and face) tacos—700 of which he served at a pop-up last summer; adobo braised pork belly sliders on house-made pan de sal (soft yeast rolls); and purple ube cheesecakes, which are, he claims with a hint of a smile in his voice, “’hood famous.”
And he’s not alone. Irbille Donia (formerly of Aragona, now working with Bon Appétit catering on the Amazon campus) started the Lahi pop-up at Grub [Editor's Note: This restaurant is now closed] on Queen Anne in 2014 “to see a brighter light shed on Filipino food.” Named for the Tagalog word for ancestry, Lahi is where Donia and chef de cuisine Justin Legaspi (also of Capitol Hill’s buzzy Korean-fusion spot, Trove) create gorgeous, composed plates that taste like the Philippines, but are made with local and seasonal ingredients.
Finally, there’s pop-up Kraken Congee, the brainchild of chefs Garrett Doherty (who cooks for Lish Food, a local online chef-prepared food delivery service) and Shane Robinson (who has since gone full-time at Amazon), along with Lahi’s Donia. Kraken’s mainstay is congee (rice porridge) reimagined, with toppings such as candied squid and seaweed, or curried pumpkin and coconut with tomato chutney. Kraken’s food is impressive, enough so that the Kraken team was able to secure financial backing on the CNBC restaurant competition show Restaurant Startup. And, at press time, the group was working with a national restaurateur to open a permanent place here in Seattle.
The crews host their own dinners, but they also collaborate; Kraken and Food and Sh*t regularly cohost meals, and some of the pop-ups share cooks. And last August, the Food and Sh*t, Lahi and Kraken Congee crews cooked alongside Brooklyn-based chef Yana Gilbuena while she was here in Seattle for The Salo Project, her effort to bring Filipino pop-ups to all 50 states in 50 weeks.
It may be in its infancy, but the Filipino food movement seems on the verge of breaking out. And it makes sense that it’s happening here. Our palates are so attuned to Asian flavors, our food scene ever hungry for more—more Korean, more Japanese, more Thai and more innovative riffs playing with the flavors of these cuisines.
“We believe in Filipino food,” Quibuyen says. “We believe there’s an audience [in Seattle] who would love it. We have that mission. We’re just looking for entry points.”