Filipino Food: At Least One Reason to Envy California

Photos by Kristy Yang
Filipino-style pigs feet. Yes, you will love them.
(Walk the Wok correspondent Kristy Yang has been taking some very long walks lately, so we thought we'd have her tell us about Asian food elsewhere. Presumably, City of Aters do step out of the In-N-Out line now and then and travel.)

Any trip to the San Francisco Bay area would be remiss without an Asian cuisine tour. Along with having one of the better Chinatowns in North America, the region also boasts one of the densest Filipino populations in the States, namely Daly City, the self-proclaimed "Pinoy Capital."

The boyfriend and I recently returned from the Northern California metropolis for a visit with his Filipino family. Whilst visiting his eccentric Uncle Tony in the seaside town of Pacifica, we were told there'd be no Goldilocks for us. (Goldilocks is a popular chain of Filipino food and bake shops.) Instead, we were shuttled to a recently opened Filipino restaurant in the neighborhood.

Juan dela Cruz Asian Cuisine -- or J.A.C. for short -- is a small family restaurant in a shopping center on the border of Pacifica and Daly City. Although its chef comes from a fine dining and hotel restaurant background, the restaurant specializes in hearty Filipino family sized dishes. To our surprise, the boyfriend's cousins informed us that the Bay area is now chock full of fancier Filipino establishments that serve tiny, bite-sized tapas dishes. Fortunately for us, there's nothing dainty about the food at J.A.C. Good thing we had come to San Francisco with murderous intentions.

Barbecue tadyang or shortribs: Have you hugged a Filipino (or Spaniard) lately?
Over lunch, Uncle Tony regaled us with the history of Filipino-Americans in the SF Bay Area and how many came to settle in Daly City after World War II because of its proximity to several military bases. During the war, Filipinos were recruited (namely into the Navy) to help fight the Japanese. After the war, a few Filipino soldiers and their families settled in the more reasonably priced Daly City. Soon after, many began to follow, wanting to create a community away from their native home and breaking the more migratory nature of past Filipino immigrants. Today, more than 40 percent of the population in the city is Filipino-American, creating one of the densest Filipino populated towns in the United States. If I got any of that wrong, sorry, Uncle Tony. I may have been slightly distracted by the food.

Yes, the food. Before the meal, the boyfriend, his cousin Maria and I had put in two hours at the gym, and I don't think it made a dent. We feasted on bistek, large slices of beef that swam in a sauce of vinegar and garlic; a heavenly barbecue tadyang or shortribs, glazed in finger-licking sweet, red sauce; coconut milk bicolano-style cooked medley of pumpkin, bitter melon, and okra; and finally, the mackdaddy of all hedonistic Filipino food, crispy pata.

uncle tony.jpg
Uncle Tony hooks us up.
The deep-fried pig's feet and knuckles were the size of my head. Where J.A.C. found pigs this large is a Game of Thrones-proportion mythical mystery. For those who have never tried the dish, imagine a thick outer layer of crispy pig skin, a second layer of gooey, sticky pig's fat, then a final layer of tender pork. Then imagine ordering dessert afterward, because that is what we did.

No respectful Filipino meal is complete without halo-halo, the shaved ice dessert. J.A.C's version came with a scoop of mango ice cream, sweet red beans, gelatin and cheese cubes. As in, CUBES OF CHEESE. What started off as me goading and teasing my boyfriend by saying "there's probably shredded cheese" in that menagerie of a dessert was an actual actuality. Uncle Tony's take on why Filipino food is so unabashedly sinful? "Blame the Spaniards. Every culture that has been touched by Spanish colonization has some sort of heavy food full of beans, rice, cheese, and fried foods." I'd never thought of it that way, and it's a whole other blog post to completely check the veracity of his sentiments, but I'm pretty sure the Filipinos took things to a whole other level.

Next week, I'll blog about our visit to the "largest Chinatown outside of Asia," including a decent Peking duck, a wicked salt and pepper crab, and a visit to the famed Fortune Cookie factory.

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lol it's true. What I've noticed with Filipino cuisine is that dishes that have been adopted from other cuisines have been made more sinful and sinister and become something totally different from the original. And that ain't a bad thing. Take the Ensaymada from Spain for example. The Philippine version is so over the top and completely different from what one finds in Spain. Take the Halo Halo. There are other similar ice desserts in Asia but in the Philippines, it would usually have red beans, sugar palm fruit (kaong), nata de coco, macapuno, sweetened stewed saba bananas, sweetened white beans, wintermelon (kondol), sweet potato, sago, langka, purple yam (ube), evaporated milk, sugar, pinipig, gulaman, leche flan, ice cream, corn, etc etc. Haha damn. The pancit palabok ..... noodles, dried fish flakes, chicharron, pork, green onions, shrimp head sauce, boiled eggs, shrimp, squid, bilimbi (kamias), toasted garlic, coriander, etc. But while some foods are made over the top, they still make sense and come together beautifully in taste and texture. Sisig for example is a melange of pork snout, pigs ears, cheeks, tongue, chicken liver, topped with chicharron and an egg served on a sizzling plate. It sounds overwhelming, but think of the different textures you get from all those different parts of the pig's head. Then, the richness is tempered and elevated by calamansi, onions, and chilies. Philippine cuisine is remarkably over the top, delicious, comforting, homey, varied, balanced, and complex all at the same time. 

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