A few weeks ago, SFoodie editor John Birdsall raised the question: Is Filipino cuisine about to blossom in San Francisco? Most of the Bay Area's Filipino restaurants are found on the Peninsula and around the Carquinez Strait; within city limits, we have only a few places, most of them steam-table takeout joints.
But last month, as Birdsall noted, San Francisco's Filipino street carts, realizing they formed a quorum, gathered in a Daly City bar to serve sparked-up versions of kinilaw, ginataang, and turon. Mercury Lounge just opened a sidewalk window dispensing Filipino-fusion snacks on weekend nights. San Francisco's Asian Culinary Forum (www.asianculinaryforum.org) is holding a "Filipino Flavors" meeting May 15 and 16. And just before the recession did it in, pan-Asian Poleng Lounge found new energy and audiences by concentrating on Filipino flavors.
Until that day when S.F. foodistas try to trump one another by arguing over the best source in the city for pinakbet and sinigang, you'll have to drive to San Bruno's Patio Filipino.
Get there early, because by 7:30 p.m., there's quite a scene: 10-person family outings next to two-top romantic dates. Birthday parties that spill out of the side room. Conversations that flicker between Tagalog and English, the chopped-up understandable bits a surreal pleasure for the monolingual eavesdropper. Waiters weave through the restaurant wielding elaborately garnished platters of fried milkfish and cast-iron plates that sputter and smoke, filling the room with the smell of spiced pork.
The restaurant is packed for good reason. Patio Filipino takes the same approach as San Francisco restaurants like Pagolac, Lers Ros, and Burma Superstar: It's a comfortable, attractive, well-priced bistro that satisfies both first-generation palates and second-generation expectations of what a night out at a good restaurant entails — touches like olive walls and dark-wood flourishes, starched cloth napkins, and white ceramic plates that waft away the moment the waiters spot them lying empty. True to the restaurant's name, there's a patio out front for summer dining, hidden from El Camino Real by 6-foot-high shrubbery.
Owners Bambie Fernando (who owns a string of smaller Filipino restaurants on the Peninsula), Tito Gonzales, and Johann Yuzon (the former president of the Goldilocks Bakeshop chain, which has locations all over the state) opened Patio Filipino five years ago, serving what manager Irwin Ilao calls Manila-style food. "These are homegrown dishes that mothers and fathers make," Ilao says. "So they're very critical as to how the food is supposed to taste. There is a right recipe, and [the customers] know if it's good or not."
Patio Filipino's own crispy pata ($10) is famous enough to make this year's Saveur 100 (a list of the magazine's favorite foods). Crispy pata is the porchetta for people who don't mind cutting around a little gristle. The waiters drop off a single pork hock the size of a butternut squash that has been braised overnight and then deep-fried, its bubbly golden skin scored so the subcutaneous fat melts off in the fryer. Slice into the meatiest spots and the skin comes off in shards, crackling as you cut, exposing tender pink chunks with the flavor of a good Easter ham.
Occasionally, the kitchen refined away the appeal of a dish. The peanut sauce on the kare-kare, or braised oxtail ($14), tasted sweet and flaccid no matter how much of the salty, funk-laden housemade bagoong (shrimp paste with chiles) we spooned onto it. And neither of the desserts I tried — Patio Filipino's take on halo-halo, a luridly colored dessert stripped down to a few jellies and sweet-potato ice cream in a young coconut ($7.25), or the brazo con fruta ($7.25), a meringue covered in underripe berries and cheap chocolate sauce — seemed the best way to end the meal.
Ilao concedes that his kitchen makes sizzling pork sisig ($13), fried pork encased in scrambled egg and served on a iron sizzle platter, with side pork instead of the more traditional cheeks, tails, and ears. But it affects only the crunch of the meat, leaving the flavor true. And the restaurant's sinigangs — beef, pork, mixed seafood, corned beef, or milkfish (all $11 or $12) — have a clean, scouring tartness that complements the robust flavors of many of the other dishes. Moons of lightly cooked Japanese eggplant, crisp green lengths of long beans, arcs of fresh tomato, and meat all bob in a birdbath-sized bowl filled with a clear, light-brown broth soured with tamarind. At first taste the sinigang seems too tart to bear; but then, after a few mouthfuls of fried pork or coconut milk, you find yourself reaching for another spoonful of the soup, washing away their lingering richness, readying your palate to take them on afresh.
One of my dinner guests advised that the customary way to balance out the dishes on the table was to order a wet, brothy dish for every dry one. And indeed, the pata made a great match for the ginataang ($10), crisp-tender long beans and chunks of creamy pumpkin simmered in a thick, coral-colored coconut sauce. The aromas of shrimp paste and pork rumbled underneath the stew's mild flavor at a frequency that I felt more than smelled.
Another good pairing was the beef caldareta ($15) and the bangus belly with ensalada ($14). In the caldareta, short ribs were braised down with tomatoes, garlic, and peppers until their flavors merged and coalesced, a cola-colored stew enriched with liver paté. Contrast that with the bright flash and crunch of the fried bangus (milkfish), lightly battered and served with a salsa of tomato, unripe mango, onion, and salted duck egg. Bangus may be a popular fish in the Philippines, but it's normally a treacherous one; Patio Filipino uses bangus belly in most of its fish dishes, avoiding the fine network of bones that some eaters treat like a puzzle to be pleasantly worried over and others (ahem, me) as a game of Russian roulette.
The Bay Area has one of the largest Filipino-American communities in the United States — bigger than our Korean, Thai, Burmese, or Pakistani communities — so why hasn't Filipino cuisine exploded at the same pace as these other cuisines? There are certainly enough Filipino-American chefs with good résumés making their way into the restaurant scene, and enough diners who are curious and excited about what they may do. If the omens are indeed correct, I suspect that the city will attract the experimenters, the second-generation cooks with French culinary training and eclectic San Franciscan tastes, while more traditional restaurants like Patio Filipino will stay in the suburbs. Ilao says he has just persuaded the owners to open up Patio Filipino for franchising. Somebody want to open a Mission branch?