Battle Hymn of the Republika

Republika SF, a forthcoming retail space and business incubator in Soma Pilipinas, demonstrates how intimately that cultural district’s success relates to Filipino cuisine.

San Francisco’s Filipino residents have been displaced not once but twice.

Following the 1981 demolition of the I-Hotel in what was then known as “Manilatown,” the heart of the community shifted from the Manhattan-izing northern edge of the Financial District into South of Market, but that neighborhood was bulldozed only a few years later to make room for the Yerba Buena development on the superblock bounded by Mission, Howard, Third, and Fourth streets.

This phase of evictions and displacement affected other groups that called SoMa home — notably a working-class queer/leather subculture whose presence is still felt farther west — but considering that Filipinos have become the most numerous category of Asian-Americans in California, it’s arguably more of a historical slight in need of redress.

Having developed as a response to the controversial, 5M development — a billion-dollar, four-acre project that detractors maintain will only increase the exodus of Filipino residents and heritage — SOMA Pilipinas has quickly grown into one of San Francisco’s feistiest and most quickly flourishing cultural districts. Its proponents weren’t about to see their community atomized for the third time.

For the last several years, Kultivate Labs has been the force behind UNDISCOVERED SF, a series of night markets and other events that draw awareness to local Filipino small businesses, many of which are culinary in nature. And last Friday night, in an event space inside another spiffy SoMa development, Kultivate Labs’ executive director Desi Danganan gave an update on the project’s notably rapid timeline, centered on Republika SF, a retail spot and business incubator on the ground-floor of a city-owned parking garage on Mission Street that by 2020 will begin to anchor a thriving commercial strip of Filipino-owned businesses, eventually putting SOMA Pilipinas on an equal footing to more established cultural districts like Japantown.

There have been some fortuitous moments, as Danganan noted while guests dug into plates of kettle corn with umami-sweet bagoong (or fermented shrimp paste) glaze, black pepper, chicharrons, and nori. The night before he died, Mayor Ed Lee sent a letter to the SFMTA urging the agency to work with SOMA Pilipinas on its retail-revival plan.

“It wasn’t binding,”Danganan told SF Weekly later that evening. “It was a directive: ‘I want to see this happen.’ We had several meetings with SFMTA and they didn’t take us seriously, but after that, it completely turned around — and they’re actually giving us the deal of a lifetime, $1 a square foot.”

While projects like the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit plan creep along, SOMA Pilipinas is moving quickly. Filipino-owned businesses, like a boutique called The Living Room and a restaurant called Nick’s Filipino, are scheduled to open in the next year or so. Republika will debut with flexible retail spaces for rotating entrepreneurs,plus allocated room for Asmbly Hall and Arkipelago Books (whose sales Danganan already helped increase dramatically by reworking their website). Without ignoring the struggles that other businesses in the area have endured, the fact that post-5M SoMa is in a period of profound flux may actually be advantageous.

“We think we can do it by 2020,” Danganan says of the ambitious timeline. “We partner with developers, because there’s always areas where you can collaborate. They’re given mandates to have some kind of community benefit. We try to make it easy for them to want to partner with us in terms of placing businesses. We don’t want to shake them down. We want to show them a portfolio of viable businesses to choose from, instead of muscling in.”

Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke, co-founders of [people. power. media] who were present Friday evening, agreed with Danganan’s  assessment.

“We brought SOMA Pilipinas up” during the 5M fight, Ruiz said. “How can 5M be fast-tracked, and SOMA Pilipinas has been on the ‘slow-track’ for 10 years?”

While it might be overly transactional to conclude simply that the city owes its Filipino constituency because of past wrongs, Smooke believes “political guilt” helped the project along. (He is also the chair of the board of SOMCAN, the South of Market Community Action Neighborhood.)

On Monday, Danganan revealed that Boston Properties, the owners of the Salesforce Tower, had issued a one-to-one matching grant up to $2,000 for Republika, which is effectively the next step for UNDISCOVERED (whose popular events will still take place, of course). Developers Alexandria Real Estate and Brookfield have announced matching grants as well.And mobile catering company Straight Up will become the bar-and-cafe at the center of Republika, proving its mettle on Friday. Filipino food is having a moment, or maybe “yet another” moment.

Straight Up’s clever bread roll dip — basically an ode to the bread-and-Cheez Wiz snack its creator grew up on — combined buttered and toasted biscocho with confit garlic, chives, and a coconut-chick pea base into a treat lighter than any raclette. But the highbrow-lowbrow masterpiece was the “Bistek Chistek,” chuck steak marinated in pepper relish with caramelized onions and provolone on a torpedo roll in an homage to Manila by way of Philadelphia.

While sisig is normally crispy, Straight Up’s presentation of grilled pork belly, pork cheeks, and pork ears cooked in soy sauce, butter, and vinegar was almost creamy in texture. This is because the future location inside Republika, a multi-purpose venue, all but prohibits a smoke-belching kitchen. But its fattiness squared with a soju-based “mango chili-mansi,” a sweet-spicy concoction of mango nectar, calamansi lime juice, honey, and a chili-lime rim garnished with a chili-dried mango. 

Not everyone in San Francisco speaks Tagalog, but its clear that Straight Up, Republika, and SOMA Pilpiinas speak the language of San Francisco: food.

New Noodles

Not far away, the world’s first Michelin-starred ramen restaurant has opened in a street-facing quadrant of the Metreon. Chef Yuki Onishi’s first international foray for Tsuta has a slim menu centered on fastidiously prepared soba noodles. While hardly a food-court booth, the interior is about as neutral and spartan as San Francisco restaurants get — although much bigger than the nine-seat, 150-bowl-a-day original — allowing the ramen to speak for itself.

How much ramen can this city handle? At Tsuta, the answer is directly proportional to one’s love of chashu and of truffle oil. The roasted pork comes as a standalone appetizer, served cold with a butter sauce, as well as in the broth, while white and black truffle oils each grace one of the three primary ramen preparations. Since miso ramen tends to be salty, we went with the ajitama chashu shoyu soba, whose perfectly cooked eggs nourish the ramen that nourishes you. Hosaki menma (fermented bamboo shoots) deepen the dish, but no matter how gilt with truffle oil, the standout is the noodles themselves: supple and agreeable to the tooth.

For being so soupy, Tsuta is nonetheless dry, with no liquor license, hence no sake. But from bowls to trays, the accouterments are elegant, lending a “for serious ramen-istas only” cast. Ramen weather will be here eventually — maybe next week, maybe the week after — and when it does, remember to double up on the soba.

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