There are about 1.5 million people of Filipino descent living in California, with about 458,000 Filipino Americans concentrated in the Bay Area alone. Yet, Filipino food has long been underrepresented in California cuisine and the Bay Area dining scene.
“Filipino food has always been around,” said Kevin Pelgone, marketing director and board member of the Filipino Food Movement, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco with the mission to preserve, promote and progress Filipino cuisine. It’s not that Filipino restaurant never existed here, but until recently, many are in areas with larger Filipino communities, like Daly City, South San Francisco and Vallejo, and are mostly only known by locals of those communities. But within the last few years, a new Filipino food movement has emerged, bringing the cuisine into the spotlight and to food hot spots in the East Bay and San Francisco.
“Filipino Americans are now more than ever ready to showcase their culinary expertise,” said Pelgone. Recently, more food businesses are popping up — from food trucks serving Filipino fusion dishes, to pop-ups and restaurants serving modernized versions of traditional fare — providing greater access and more visibility to a larger audience.
Pelgone is happy to see more Filipino American entrepreneurs sharing a part of their culture and heritage while pursuing their passions for cooking Filipino cuisine. From comforting home-style Filipino turo turo to more refined takes on traditional dishes, this new generation of chefs is making a name for themselves and Filipino food in the East Bay.
Lucky Three Seven
Turo turo is a style of dining where a variety of dishes are presented in steam trays. In Tagalog, turo turo means “point point,” which is literally what you do at one of these restaurants — point at what you want on your plate.
These days, a version of turo turo dining can be found at Lucky Three Seven, located at the corner of a bustling street in a mostly residential neighborhood in East Oakland. This family-owned take-out business has been serving Filipino food to the community since 2013.
Dishes at Lucky Three Seven are prepared in advance and laid out in a row of steam trays. Diners order food to-go at a window, choosing from rotating daily specials, like a hearty braised stews like oxtail estofado and chicken adobo and cured chicken and pork tocino, all of which can be ordered with an itlog, or fried egg on top. Other specialties include their popular XL lumpia and G-Fire wings, all fried to order so everything that comes out of the window is crispy and hot.
Lucky Three Seven, 2868 Fruitvale Ave. (at Brookdale), Oakland
Chef Bobby Punla grew up in Richmond, California, and as a kid, his family had to travel to Hercules to eat at a Filipino restaurant. Punla went to culinary school immediately after high school and moved to New York City, where he worked in fine dining restaurants. In New York, he noticed the presence of modern Filipino restaurants and wondered why these didn’t exist in the Bay Area.
When Punla met and cooked with chef Jan Dela Paz, an immigrant from the Philippines, at the Ramen Shop in Oakland, they decided they’d focus on bringing modern Filipino food to the East Bay. Together, they launched a pop-up called Likha. In June, Punla and Dela Paz started cooking out of the kitchen at Hometown Heroes, a sports bar in Emeryville, where Likha is a semi-permanent pop-up.
Likha means “to create” in Tagalog, referring to the creativity that Dela Paz and Punla put into their food. Taking traditional Filipino dishes they learned in their families’ kitchens, the chefs use techniques learned from their experience in fine dining and high-quality ingredients. The chefs make everything from scratch, and offer a few vegetarian and vegan options, too.
Likha’s dinner menu is small, featuring a few starters like pork lumpia and ukoy fritters, as well as some more substantial dishes like a pork belly sisig, which comes to the table sizzling on a hot plate with a sous vide egg on top, and a crispy tofu and veggie ginataan rice bowl, which is a mild curry dish made with coconut milk. For dessert, Likha offers a version of halo-halo made with almond milk infused with ube (purple yam) jam, flan and strawberry ice cream all topped with Fruity Pebbles cereal. On weekends, a brunch menu features dishes like a pork belly tocino silog, featuring crispy cured pork belly, pickled papaya and a fried egg.
Likha at Hometown Heroes, 4000 Adeline St. (at 40th), Emeryville
Jeepney Guy is a catering and pop-up business that was started seven years in San Francisco by Dennis Villafranca. Prior to Jeepney Guy, Villafranca worked in corporate design management, but deep down he knew he wanted to cook for a living.
Villafranca has a hard time describing Filipino food, but he sees it as balance of flavors and influences from a variety of cultures — Spanish, Chinese and Japanese, most notably — that inform and influence it.
The most popular and sought-after dish at the Jeepney Guy is the lechon, or slow-roasted pork with crispy skin. Villafranca spent two years experimenting with pork belly to perfect it.
The first Jeepney Guy event in Oakland was at the Eat Real Festival in 2015 where Villafranca experienced a warm reception. “There was something different and special about Oakland,” said Villafranca, who admits he likes to watch customer’s reactions when they take their first bite of his food. The smiles make all the hard work worthwhile, he said.
When the opportunity arose to partner with some friends (including Pelgone of the Filipino Food Movement) who were opening a new bar in West Oakland, Villafranca knew it was where Jeepney Guy belonged. 7th West, which will celebrate its grand opening on Aug. 25, is part restaurant, part bar and part community art space. The Jeepney Guy menu will feature lechon, but Villafranca said to expect lots of bar snacks like chicharon, lumpia and Pinoy-style tater tots to be served with homemade dipping sauces so that individuals can balance the flavors to their unique palates. The bar at 7th West will complement the food with Filipino-inspired drinks.
Jeepney Guy will be at 7th West, 1255 7th St., Oakland
Brandi and Janice Dulce are both business and life partners. The concept of FOB Kitchen was born after a meal that Janice, a former restaurant server and self-taught home chef cooked for Brandi when they were dating. Using organic and sustainable ingredients, Janice cooked the meal from traditional recipes she learned from her grandmother. After that meal, Brandi encouraged Janice to start a pop-up to make scratch-made Filipino comfort food using only the best ingredients. Together, the couple launched FOB Kitchen in May 2015, as a weekly pop-up at Gashead Tavern in San Francisco.
Running their own food business has been a lot of hard work; Janice explained that she works much harder now and makes less money than she did as a restaurant server. This experience may contribute to the lack of Filipino restaurants in the Bay Area.
“It’s a very (financially) risky business,” she said, explaining that many Filipino parents encourage their children to go to school and work in the healthcare field, rather than work in the restaurant industry. Still, the Dulces have decided to continue pursuing their dream to open their own restaurant.
Earlier this year, FOB Kitchen announced it will take over the space that was once Chef Preeti Misty’s Juhu Beach Club in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. The Dulces, who just moved to the East Bay, see the new space as an opportunity to serve a larger community and bring more awareness to Filipino food.
FOB Kitchen is still in construction mode, with an opening date slated for September. Once open, FOB Kitchen will feature dishes like a torta talong, a charred eggplant omelet topped with shallots and tomatoes, and the tapsilog plate, featuring thinly sliced marinated grass-fed beef. Both dishes are served with garlic fried rice, purple cabbage slaw, pineapple and a sunny side egg.
Along with a brick-and-mortar space to call their own, the owners now have a liquor license, so they hired bar consultant Cali Gold to create a cocktail menu inspired by ingredients from the Philippine Islands.
FOB Kitchen will be at 5179 Telegraph Ave. (at 51st), Oakland
Lisa Lau is a Bay Area native. She was born in San Francisco and grew up in the East Bay. She lived in Southern California working in the television industry for eight years before moving back to Oakland. She loves to cook, bake, eat, and travel. Her food obsession led her to start her blog 510foodie.com in 2010 and she earned the title of Top 15 Oakland blogs to follow in 2018.