With Gaya Gaya, chef Danilo ‘DJ’ Tangalin gives Filipino food a reboot

Filipino restaurant on Miramar Road is the latest project from Tangalin, a local chef who’s been active in trying to move Filipino cuisine into the mainstream


For years, chef Danilo “DJ” Tangalin cooked in some of San Diego’s most prominent and dynamic kitchens — from Sea 180 Coastal Tavern to JRDN to Tidal and, most recently, Bivouac Ciderworks.

He left Bivouac Ciderworks a few months ago to launch a new project with business partner Archie Soria: a higher-end Filipino restaurant called Maya. Tangalin says he’s pursuing four culinary concepts, and Maya was set to launch first. But when an opportunity surfaced, they shuffled the cards and launched the more casual Gaya Gaya first instead.

Now open for a few months, Gaya Gaya — “copycat” in Tangalin’s native Tagalog — is his attempt to take dishes with deep Filipino roots and make them his own. Tradition with a twist.

Filipinos have always found comfort in food. Whether in a fresh-out-of-the-oven pandesal (dinner roll), an ice-cold glass of halo-halo (cold dessert), a garlic-infused pot of adobo or a steaming bowl of kare-kare (ground peanut-braised oxtail). These familiar dishes are fond reminders of past lives back “home” in the Philippines.

But sometimes the familiar needs an update. That’s where Tangalin comes in. The Filipino chef is one of the driving forces behind the local Filipino food movement, an effort to bring Filipino food into the mainstream.

“Basically, what we wanted to do is copy not necessarily 100 percent of Filipino recipes but copy the the roots and traditions of Filipino hospitality,” Tangalin says. “So for me, when we sat down and asked ourselves what are we trying to do, we’re not just trying to open a Filipino restaurant. We want to open a place where people can experience Filipino hospitality and Filipino dining experience.”

Tangalin’s Gaya Gaya, on Miramar Road, is an unusual undertaking in San Diego County. Filipino cuisine, at least in San Diego, has rarely found a home in what many would consider a traditional sit-down restaurant environment. Instead, it tends to pop up as fast casual dining establishments, most often in strip malls with a well-established Filipino clientele — like Max’s in Chula Vista and Villa Manila in National City — or mom-and-pop “point-point joints” (turo-turo), where ready-made dishes await the diner behind a glass partition.

Gaya Gaya opened amid much fanfare, mainly because of the culinary muscle behind it — Tangalin. Before opening Gaya Gaya, he was the executive chef at Bivuoac Ciderworks in North Park, where traditional Filipino food played well with the nuanced flavors of cider.

For those familiar with Filipino food, Gaya Gaya’s menu will be fairly recognizable. The Filipino flavor is front and center, albeit with twists here and there — all with Tangalin’s culinary imprint.

During our first visit, we kept it safe, sticking with traditional dishes like empanada for our appetizer and pork adobo and crispy pata for our entrees. But even these traditional dishes all had the Tangalin twist.

The adobo empanada ($8) is a pastry pocket filled with mushroom adobo duxelle, caramelized onion, garlic confit aioli and chives. It comes out of the kitchen so flaky and flavorful, you’ll want the entire plate for yourself. If dining with friends or family, do yourself a favor and order more than one plate (three pieces come with each order).

The pork adobo bowl ($12) is slow-cooked pork shoulder, scallion and potato in apple cider soy jus. The cider and soy give it a hint of that traditional adobo flavor, but without the full-on flavor of vinegar. It was sweeter than what normally passes for adobo — at least adobo that I’m familiar with. It was still tasty, though, and everything in the bowl was devoured, even the potatoes.

A colleague, who isn’t Filipino but knows more about San Diego’s Filipino food scene than I do, said after a recent visit: “The pork adobo and garlic rice I had wasn’t just better than the chicken dishes I had last time, it was one of the best Filipino meals I’ve had in San Diego. It was like an upper-level version of adobo with perfectly cooked pork belly and shadings to the flavor I didn’t expect. Asian fusion isn’t all bad!”

The star of that first visit was the crispy pata ($19.75) — pork hock served with jackfruit atsara (pickled relish) and cucumber lemon soy. The pork hock was crispy on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth tender inside. It’s first simmered then deep fried to lock in the moisture and flavor, and it’s definitely flavorful. I’m used to acid with this dish in the form of a vinegar sauce, but what came with the dish skewed toward the sweeter side.

During another visit — this time for lunch — I asked the waitress about the most popular dishes and ordered two of them. The first dish was sisig ($12.50), but again with a twist. Instead of the traditional minced pork — usually pork jowl — this one had pig ears, thinly sliced and tossed in a chili-citrus aioli and topped with a sunny-side-up fried egg. It’s billed as the style of sisig that was a favorite of the late Anthony Bourdain, whose likeness adorns one of the restaurant’s walls. It again was sweeter than what I’m used to, at least sisig-wise, but it had a good flavor. There was something about the texture of the pig ears that I just couldn’t get over, so after a few bites, I set the plate aside for another popular dish: the Bicol Express.

Named for the cooking style in the Philippine region of Bicol, it is a stew with a spicy-savory flavor that comes from chilies, coconut milk, shrimp paste, onion and garlic. It’s normally made with pork, but at Gaya Gaya, it’s a seafood Bicol Express ($15.50) with mussels in ginger coconut broth topped with potatoes. It reminded me of moule frites, but the broth definitely had a slight kick to it. Since I adore mussels and anything remotely spicy, I was in heaven, no matter that the temperature outside was in the high 80s. The coconut-based broth was so flavorful, I finished the entire bowl, save for a few potato pieces.

The rest of the menu has familiar Filipino dishes. The surf and turf lumpia (pork and shrimp) came out crispy but a bit shy on flavor, so the sweet-and-sour sauce that accompanied it came in handy ($6). There’s pinakbet ($9.50), a traditional dish that’s heavy on the veggies — in this case, eggplant, squash, green beans, bitter melon and okra, all sauteed and tossed in shrimp paste (bagoong).

When Tangalin was at Tidal a few years ago, he had the most delectable kare-kare for San Diego Restaurant Week. At Gaya Gaya, his menu has kare-kare, normally oxtail stew in savory peanut sauce. Here, it’s grilled beef ribs with pole beans, eggplant puree and bok choy in a cashew-based sauce. It’s a bit pricey, though, at $25.

If you’re looking for Tangalin’s famous adobo fried chicken, which he concocted at Bivuoac Ciderworks, look no further than Gaya Gaya. He brought it with him, and it comes with ube waffle, ube butter and honey (ube is purple yam, a Filipino staple, especially in desserts). It’s $21.50 here. I didn’t have it at Gaya Gaya, but if it’s the same recipe, it’ll be a favorite of fried chicken enthusiasts.

For years, San Diego’s go-to Filipino locales were Mira Mesa and National City. Before he left for Seattle’s Outlier restaurant, Anthony Sinsay began experimenting with Filipino cuisine at J-Six downtown. He even had a few Filipino-centric chef collaboration dinners, one of which featured Tangalin.

Now Gaya Gaya has entered San Diego’s culinary landscape, with an energetic and ambitious Filipino chef at the helm. Tangalin isn’t afraid to push the envelope, and in the last couple of months, he has experimented with new dishes and ramped up his themed dinners (there’s an upcoming Filipino vegan dinner) and chef collaborations, most recently with “MasterChef” season 6 winner Claudia Sandoval.

Tangalin has a few more projects in the works, but for now, his focus is on his months-old baby: Gaya Gaya, which sits in the heart of Miramar, surrounded by furniture and flooring stores. It took over the space formerly occupied by another Filipino restaurant, Sarap Filipino Kitchen.

Gaya Gaya, Tangalin admits, has its ups and downs, like any restaurant business. But this one is a labor of love and a family affair — he’s at the restaurant every day, and his wife is often seen shuttling back and forth from the kitchen and helping the wait staff set or clear tables.

When he was at Bivouac Ciderworks, Tangalin turned introspective when asked about his career as a chef: “I cook with my heart and what I know, and this is food I know.”

That still applies at Gaya Gaya, where every dish out of the kitchen, in looks and and in taste, has the Tangalin touch.

The big question is, are San Diegans ready for Tangalin’s vision of what Filipino cuisine can be?

Gaya Gaya: Five-course Filipino Vegan Dinner

When: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18

Address: 7580 Miramar Road, San Diego

Tickets: $50 per person

Phone: (858) 386-0090