San Diego chefs pushing Filipino cuisine to new heights

Evan Cruz is the executive chef at Arterra Restaurant at the San Diego Marriott Del Mar. (K.C. Alfred/U-T)
Evan Cruz is the executive chef at Arterra Restaurant at the San Diego Marriott Del Mar. (K.C. Alfred/U-T)
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Filipino food is having a major moment in America, and a handful of local Filipino chefs are taking the lead by infusing their menus with modern takes on favorite childhood dishes.

Anthony Sinsay from Jsix Restaurant, Danilo “DJ” Tangalin at Tidal, Evan Cruz at Arterra and Kristianna Zabala at Nomad Donuts have incorporated Filipino ingredients and cooking techniques into dishes that are now top-sellers. They all say Filipino food - long overlooked by critics for being too strange, too downscale, too derivative or too fatty and sweet - has finally arrived.

“People are always looking at what’s next, and we’re in a great spot right now,” Tangalin said. “Filipino food can be at the forefront of the story.”

Over the past four years, Filipino food has been increasingly on the tongues of the world’s tastemakers. Bad Saint, a Filipino-American restaurant in Washington, D.C., ranks No. 2 on Bon Appétit’s list of America’s 10 best new restaurants of 2016.

Two restaurants in Manila have made the World’s 50 Best Asian Restaurants list since 2015. Food critics at the New York Times and L.A. Times have raved about Filipino pork and chicken dishes. And globe-trotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain has declared the pork dishes in the Philippine island of Cebu as the world’s best.

San Diego was singled out as a trendsetter by Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” who said in a 2012 USA Today article that Filipino food is “the next big thing” and this city’s chefs are leading the charge. The following spring, he and a TV crew followed Sinsay to the local Filipino market Seafood City, where they lunched on fried Filipino milkfish, pork rinds and pandesal (soft and airy bread rolls).

Melting pot

Sinsay’s parents, U.S. Navy veterans who immigrated from the Philippines in 1960, wanted their four U.S.-born children to embrace America, so they didn’t teach them Tagalog. Sinsay grew up on his dad’s traditional cooking, but spent most of his career cooking French and other cuisines. Then after he met his Colombian wife, Elyse, in 2010, he re-embraced his roots.

“She always pushed me to cook from my heart,” Sinsay said. “When I was young, I thought Filipino cooking wasn’t sophisticated enough. I identified with it, but I always shunned it. As I got older, I developed a passion for finding my own culture.”

San Diego County is home to nearly 200,000 Filipinos, one of the largest concentrations in America. Yet despite the community’s strong local presence, most of its Filipino restaurants are deli-like shops known as “point-point” joints (point at what you want) in National City and Mira Mesa. Local non-Filipinos may love lumpia, pancit and chicken adobo - traditional Filipino foods - but Cruz says they’ve barely scratched the surface of the nation’s cuisine.

Cruz was born at Subic Bay, the huge naval base built by the Spanish in 1885, but run by the U.S. Navy for most of the 20th century. After the base closed in 1992, Pacific Rim businesses from Korea, China and Japan flooded in. Cruz described Filipino food as a melting pot of international influences.

Chefs in the Philippines may cook with homegrown pork and rice, regional fish, ube (purple yam) and calamansi (citrus fruit), but they’re with prepared with American sugar, Chinese noodles, Japanese soy sauce, Thai curry and Spanish paprika.

The unifying ingredient is vinegar, which Cruz said chefs traditionally used to stew fresh produce and proteins before they spoiled in the tropical heat and humidity.

Cruz, Sinsay and Tangalin all work at restaurants affiliated with local hotels, so their menus read as mainstream American, but many of the dishes are Filipino in spirit.

Cruz’s Arterra, at the San Diego Marriott Del Mar, serves homemade longanisa as the breakfast house sausage and his Coca-Cola-sweetened ribs are cooked adobo-style with vinegar, garlic and onions.

Sinsay’s warm beet salad is a vegetarian twist on paksiw (vinegar-simmered stew), his stir-fried dish is an adaptation of pancit bihon (noodles), and his roasted chicken dish riffs on lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly) with Mang Tomas (pork liver) sauce.

Tangalin’s Tidal, at the Paradise Point Resort, has refashioned traditional bulalo (bone marrow soup) into a French onion soup, his mussels dish has tamarind broth, his house bread is pandesal and the ceviche starter is kilawin-style (a raw seafood or meat dish).

Tangalin’s family ran a fish farm in the Philippines and he grew up cooking in his mother’s carinderia (street cafe) before they immigrated to Hawaii when he was 16. Locally, he worked at Prepkitchen, JRDN and Decoy before launching the Filipino-inspired menu at Tidal in October. Because most of the customers at his bayside restaurant aren’t Filipino, he said revamping the dishes and names to local tastes introduces the cuisine in an accessible way.

“I want to share my culture with everyone else but not force it,” he said.

Zabala has delivered Filipino flavors in the most unique way: gourmet doughnuts. She grew up in Northridge, where her parents moved from the Philippines in the late 1960s. By age 7, she was baking trays of sweets for the neighbors and by 17 was in the kitchen at the Bali Hai restaurant on Shelter Island.

After culinary school she cooked her way around the country, including four years as executive pastry chef at the Michelin-starred Village Pub in the Bay area. Two years ago, she left her pastry position at Mister A’s in Bankers Hill to create the “globally inspired” doughnut menu at North Park’s Nomad Donuts.

One of her first creations was the purple ube taro coconut flavor, which is now Nomad’s signature product. Other Philippine-themed doughnuts she has created are coconut pandan, calamansi and halo-halo (a baked version of the parfait dessert, with custard, red beans and pandan).

“I like to introduce many things that people aren’t used to seeing, and being that Filipino cooking is part of my background, I want people to become more familiar with this cuisine for sure,” she said.

The four chefs say challenges remain to mainstreaming Filipino cuisine. Filipino-Americans aren’t accustomed to paying a lot for their native dishes and there are no standard recipes, since ingredients vary widely in the 7,600-island archipelago.

Three-Michelin-star chef Alain Ducasse has opened two culinary schools in the Philippines, but he says the nation’s cuisine can’t be elevated until it’s purged of excessive fat, salt and sugar.

The most accessible dishes will come first, like the famous Filipino fried chicken produced by the internationally known Manila-born fast-food chain Max’s, which will open three outlets next year in San Diego County, beginning with one next spring in Chula Vista.

For now, Sinsay and others say they’re doing what they can to honor their parents and grandparents, who used food to express their love for family.

“We’re not a Filipino restaurant, we’re an American restaurant with Filipino influence,” Sinsay said. “I’m just a fat Filipino kid from San Diego cooking inauthentic dishes from my childhood.”

DJ Tangalin, executive chef at Tidal restaurant at the Paradise Point Resort & Spa. (K.C. Alfred/U-T)

Danilo “DJ” Tangalin

Tidal Restaurant

Age: 31

Home: Escondido

Favorite dish from childhood: Dinuguan (pork braised in pork blood)

Favorite dish on my menu: Local fish kilawin (Filipino-style ceviche)

Little-known fact: Spent two years as a nursing student in New Jersey before switching to culinary school

Anthony Sinsay

Jsix Restaurant

Age: 33

Home: Vista

Favorite Filipino dish from childhood: Sisig (sizzling pork face with chile, garlic and vinegar with fried egg)

Favorite dish on my menu: Beet Paksiw (beets cooked in vinegar and garlic)

Little-known fact: Started cooking at 14 and won “Chef of the Fest” at the 2009 San Diego Bay Food & Wine Festival.

Evan Cruz

Arterra Restaurant

Age: 38

Home: Carmel Valley

Favorite dish from childhood: Adobo (meat stewed in vinegar, garlic and spices) and grandma’s Asian curry

Favorite dish on my menu: Longanisa (Filipino-inspired house sausage)

Little-known fact: Was born premature at 4-½ pounds and was overfed by his worried grandmother, contributing to a lifelong passion for eating.

Kristianna Zabala

Nomad Donuts

Age: 32

Home: North Park

Favorite dish from childhood: Sinigang (tamarind soup)

Favorite dish on my menu: Scotch eggs donut

Little-known fact: Recently won $10,000 on the cooking Channel’s “Sugar Showdown” TV contest.


Chef Sinsay promotes the art of food