I can’t really tell you the first time I ever tasted Filipino Cuisine. Thinking back, it seems like I sampled adobo maybe 20 years ago… but was I really paying attention every time I ate an empanada? It could be I had consumed Filipino dishes for years without even realizing it. Then I started paying attention.
I can tell you, however, the first time I ever went to a Filipino restaurant. It was back in 2008, shortly after moving to Los Angeles. In and around the intersection of Vermont Ave and Santa Monica Blvd I noticed more than a few Filipino restaurants and markets. What I didn’t know at the time was that the border of the area officially known as Historic Filipinotown was close by.
Filipino longganisa sausage, chicken pastel (casserole), pochero (pork stew) and pinakbet (mixed vegetables) from the steam table at Kainan Nino in LA.
A classic Filipino breakfast plate known as sisilog consisting of pork belly sisig with garlic rice and sunny side up eggs at LA Rose, a Filipino cafe on Fountain Ave in LA.
A couple of sweet older Filipino ladies ran Kainan Nino, probably some of the nicest people I’ve ever known and certainly knowledgeable cooks. I had a-lot of questions and they were more than happy to answer all of them, even going so far as showing me how to cook a few dishes back in the kitchen.
This is the first place I ever had dishes like pinakbet, pochero and pastel; the first place I ever had sinigang, the sour soup that gets its flavor from tamarind and the first place I ever tasted longganisa, the Spanish influenced sausage that could be sweet or spicy, depending on where in the Philippines it’s from.
That’s where things get interesting. Part of the reason Filipino food had been such a mystery to me is that I couldn’t see the influences. The Spanish-derived names of foods like longganisa (or longaniza), empanadas, tocino, ensaymadas (or ensaïmadas) and even adobo lent to Philippine languages like Tagalog and Ilocano should have made the Spain connection obvious, but I missed it.
Filipino-Chinese steam buns known as siopao in Eagle Rock, LA County.
Filipino coconut rice cake (bibingka) and empanada at Josephine’s in West Covina, LA County.
It was easier to see the Chinese influence in things like the steam buns known as siopao or noodle dishes like pancit or mami, even though the Hokkien origin of these words is less apparent. I didn’t even know about the Filipino influence on Hawaiian Cuisine or that Filipino food was easy to find there, nor did I realize that even places like Rome and London have large Filipino populations, until I went to these places and saw several Filipino restaurants and markets.
Pinoy canned squid in various sauces at a Filipino market in Civitavecchia, Rome, Italy.
It still seems odd that, even in a place like Los Angeles, which has the largest Filipino population in the U.S., occupying entire cities like Eagle Rock and spread out as far as West Covina, that Filipino food is not as well known as other related cuisines… except to Filipinos of course. The nice people at Kainan Nino, which was open for years, never even got so much as a single Yelp review, and even though that place closed a while ago, the listing is still untouched.
Seafood City Filipino supermarket and halo halo at Chow King restaurant in Eagle Rock, LA County.
Does this really matter in the grand scheme of things? After all, Filipino Cuisine (or any other cuisine for that matter) doesn’t need to be popular with EVERYONE to be great. There seems to be a fallacy that something has to be accepted outside of its target audience to truly be successful. Even the notion of being “successful” or not when it comes to an entire food culture seems strange to me. I’m not sure who even has the authority to make such a determination. Entire cuisines only ever really “rise” or “fall” in the eyes of external audiences.
Filipino BBQ skewers on the grill at Dollar Hits in LA with names like “Helmet” and “Walkman” as well as Isaw Ng Baboy and Isaw Ng Manok.
Still, things do seem to be changing. I’ve seen quite a bit of speculation in the media that Filipino Cuisine will soon be as well known in the U.S. as say, Japanese or Chinese cuisines. Several Filipino cookbooks in English have come out in recent years that seem to have done pretty well (though I need to learn more Tagalog) and Filipino restaurants in Los Angeles are actually starting to get some mainstream press outside LA and local Filipino newspapers.
I even read that they opened a Jollibee in Chicago that has lines that are hours long. No waiting here, there have been multiple locations in and around LA for several years, but then there are plenty of other options to choose from.