Why can't I get pancit by delivery?
May 27, 2015 12:56 PM   Subscribe

As a Filipino-American living 1300 miles away from my mother's cooking, I would love to indulge my homesickness and eat Filipino treats in a restaurant. I live in a major metropolitan area, but can't sit down at a restaurant to eat adobo. Why is that?

In the Boston area there seems to be one actual sit down Filipino restaurant (in Quincy!). I haven't been yet, but it made me wonder why there aren't more Filipino restaurants around, as there is a pretty large Filipino population and not a lack of delicious dishes that can be made without super specialty ingredients. PRI had an article addressing the topic, as did Honest Cooking, but I wonder if Mefites can add their two cents or experiences. This can apply beyond Boston too, as it seems Filipino restaurants really only exist in California and NYC. Is there something holding Filipino food back from going big?
posted by thefang to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm thinking maybe it's that the menus can seem a little intimidating to those who have less, for lack of a better word, adventurous tastes at the dinner table. Frankly, the first time I went to a Filipino restaurant, I wanted to get up and leave because this was a restaurant (in NYC, in Queens) that really didn't make any concessions to western palates -- the menu featured liver, gizzards, hearts, intestines, stuff simmered in blood, and so on. I stayed only because my husband was really, really into it, and man am I glad I did because I loved the food. (I started out slow with a chicken dish.) But I'm guessing that a lot of westerners have the "Ick, animal organs!" reaction.
posted by holborne at 1:13 PM on May 27, 2015

I've heard that theory that Filipinos are too good at integrating and so there hasn't been a huge demand for Filipino restaurants. My guess is that it's a combination of many Filipino cooks making really greasy food (this is what I've mostly encountered in the couple of Filipino restaurants in Northern Virginia) and the food either being not being distinctive enough or too scary (ie ox tail and squid cooked in ink) to develop a huge following among other groups. I learned some recipes from a relative specifically because I couldn't find good Filipino food to buy anywhere around here, and honestly it's a lot of vinegar, soy sauce, annato, and lemon juice (calamansi!) I don't think we have many dishes that are flashy or complex the way Thai or Vietnamese food is and Americanized Chinese food fills a lot of the same niches that Filipino dishes might, and is much much much easier to find.

There's a restaurant in Manila named Centro that offers elevated but still traditional Filipino food and I would KILL to have one available near me!

This is all off the top of my head but it is something I think about periodically.
posted by brilliantine at 1:16 PM on May 27, 2015

it seems Filipino restaurants really only exist in California and NYC

FWIW there is also a pretty strong Filipino food scene in Chicago. My guess would be that while there might be a large Filipino population in Boston, there may just not be the critical mass necessary to support a number of restaurants yet? As holborne points out, it's a cuisine that can have a fairly high bar to entry for many Western palates.

I have some half-formed theories about how it seems like it's mostly 2nd generation Filipino-Americans who have opened up many of the Filipino restaurants around here, so that if a city's Filipino population is most brand-new immigrants then maybe it just hasn't happened yet and inevitably will? But I don't know whether other more mainstreamed cuisines (Thai, Vietnamese) bear these theories out.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:21 PM on May 27, 2015

recent WaPo article dissecting the trend, mostly similar to the PRI and Honest Cooking pieces.

also, previously. I have lots of words in the thread.
posted by bl1nk at 1:40 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

The biggest Filipino community, per capita, in North America is in Winnipeg, and all western Canadian cities have massive and growing Filipino populations- here in Calgary it went from less than two to five percent of the city's population in five years. I hear Tagalog every. single. day. Everywhere. But there are still only a dozen Filipino restos here that I know of. Winnipeg has 22 listed on urbanspoon. So even in western Canada with its overflowing Filipino populations that most US metros can only dream of, it's evident that the Philippines just didn't export a restaurant culture- they're not investors like HK emigrants with pockets stuffed with money and unlike HK people were already inured to cooking at home. So there it is.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:45 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Omigosh, another Boston-based Pili! *waves excitedly for not being a unicorn*

I've been seeing the occasional Filipino food popup over the last few years, but nothing permanent yet. The only local Filipino restaurant I know about is JNJ Turo in Quincy, and it's just not the same as my grandma's pancit at all. My husband and I have regular conversations about this, actually, speculating what dishes would be good starters. Lumpia, obviously, because people are familiar with egg rolls and that's similar. Chicharrones are the perfect bar food, as I've seen in Seattle and SF.

But it just seems like there's not a lot of even basic Filipino *awareness* in Boston. Fil-Ams may be the second-largest Asian-roots population in the US, but we're concentrated in SF, LA, and NYC.

We're starting to see existing restaurants have the occasional Filipino dish, but until enough of those are more common parts of peoples' awareness around here, well. (My bet is that when someone finally does start a *real* Filipino restaurant around here, it's: 1. Going to start as a food truck. 2. When it does go brick-and-mortar, probably in Allston.)
posted by Pandora Kouti at 1:52 PM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was surprised to find a Filipino restaurant here in my smallish Midwest city, and was sad it closed soon after I got here. But the owners still do a thriving business selling lumpia at various farmer's markets and festivals - they're definitely successful on the food-truck level. "Yummy spring-roll type thing" is a lower barrier to entry than even the various pancit-type dishes might be, even if I think they'd be enjoyed. I think in some ways Filipino dishes are either scary (and I say this as a person who grew up watching her uncle casually eat balut while hanging out in the kitchen) or not super-distinct and like brilliantine says, fall in a zone that the Americanized Chinese restaurants have staked out.
posted by PussKillian at 1:57 PM on May 27, 2015

FWIW there is also a pretty strong Filipino food scene in Chicago.

Seconding this.
posted by pullayup at 2:19 PM on May 27, 2015

Maybe because it's a more home-cooking based food culture than restaurant culture? My daughter's LA high school classmates all had parents who thought nothing of whipping up dinner for 30, but claimed that no place was as good as home cooking.
There's a pop-up that's been getting quite a bit of press.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:36 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

yeah, I'm also in Boston Metro and I've been dying to go to Pamangan for months but it always appears to come up while I'm out of town. Also, fwiw, the Filipino chef-owner of Ole Mexican Grill in Inman Square has been known to sometimes do one-off Filipino dinner nights, but it's unclear when his next one is going to be.

Historically, within New England, the center of Filipino immigration has been Connecticut because of the state's heavy merchant marine and Navy ties. The more dominant Southeast Asian community in Boston is Vietnamese\Cambodian.
posted by bl1nk at 3:04 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I suspect there just haven't historically been enough Filipinos in the Boston area.

Sounds like if you tried to do a meetup in Quincy you could get some company, y'know... :)
posted by maryr at 3:40 PM on May 27, 2015

Food trends rule all. A few TV shows plus a few magaze or newspaper articles may be required to get a buzz going.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:31 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've heard that theory that Filipinos are too good at integrating and so there hasn't been a huge demand for Filipino restaurants.

Nthing this. I'm Filipino-American, and grew up in LA county. Whenever my parents took me and my sisters out to eat, it was always for Chinese, Japanese, pizza, etc. Basically, all the options they never had growing up in the Philippines in the post-WWII era.

If anyone wanted Filipino food, my Dad was (and still is) the cook.
posted by invisible ink at 5:56 PM on May 27, 2015

as it seems Filipino restaurants really only exist in California and NYC

You forgot us! Yelp lists 66 Filipino restaurants in Honolulu, and a local plate lunch often has Filipino dishes on it. Filipinos also own a lot of bakeries here. Pancit, lumpia, and banana lumpia (so so good) are usually found at any work potluck. And adobo is popular at the lunch trucks, but it just tastes like stewed chicken to me.

To an outsider, however, all the restaurants are a bit similar, and none are too exciting. I've had great home-cooked Filipino meals, but I've never had a great restaurant meal. I go maybe once or twice a year, when I get an unexplained craving for dinuguan or sinigang. I don't see these crossing over into the American mainstream in the same way that Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese have.

Maybe because it's a more home-cooking based food culture than restaurant culture?

I think this is the key.
posted by kanewai at 6:21 PM on May 27, 2015

Filipino food is too strange for non-Filipinos. The latter complain when food is too salty, fishy, sweet, spicy, oily or has a weird texture due to the use of special parts of the animal. Take any dish and it is at least any two of these. I don't think it is hiya.

Why won't authentic Filipino restaurants thrive only with Pinoys? Because most families simply would not go out to eat food they can prepare at home. The business model that works are small take-out places, not big sit-down ones. Restaurants serving Pinoy-inspired dishes also might make it, but they're not quite what we look for when we crave the real thing.
posted by KwaiChangCaine at 7:51 PM on May 27, 2015

Another aspect is that immigrants tend to follow their herd; if you are moving to a strange country, it's easier to find support and services in cities (and neighbourhoods) where your countrymen also live; it's easier to find work in industries that your countrymen also work in. You speak a common language, have more contacts and so on. This extends to owning small businesses (like restaurants) as well. For instance, the motel industry in the US is dominated by Gujaratis, while the nail salon business is dominated by Vietnamese.

I suspect that Filipinos have found more success in other fields (for example, naturalized citizens of Filipino ancestry are 1.5-3x more likely to work in health care occupations than other naturalized citizens; non-citizens are 3-6x more likely than other non-citizens) than restaurant ownership.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:53 AM on May 28, 2015

Speaking from an Australian context, there are plenty of Filipinos here but next to no Filipino restaurants in Sydney. Like, one or two and you have to travel far to find them.

In contrast, there are so many Thai restaurants that they've run out of corny puns on 'Thai' (Thairiffic, Thaitanic, Thai Me Up, etc). Same with so many other SE Asian cuisines: Malaysian, Indo, Vietnamese, etc.

The explanation I was given by a Filo housemate is that because of the historical American influence, higher education (universities especially) use English as the language of instruction. Therefore, good high schools are also conducted mainly in English.

This means that Filipino expats (who become citizens or permanent residents) can transition into professional or office jobs quite seamlessly. I work with quite a few. Therefore, they don't need to go down the route of "well, nobody will employ me in an office, but at least I can cook my cuisine relatively well…" which could easily be why so many of the other SE Asian expats end up starting up small restaurants.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:50 AM on May 28, 2015

"Filipinos are the second-largest Asian population in the US, and yet there are hardly any Filipino restaurants and we have basically zero representation in the media. I’ve always wondered, 'Why is that? Why is it that we kind of just disappear into the background of people’s consciousness, when we are so populous?' We are in every part of industry. We basically run the food service in the military. Filipinos are on every single cruise ship. We’re everywhere, and yet we’re nowhere to be seen. When I talk about performance and taking up space and being in public, I’m always coming with that background in mind. I’m claiming space, claiming attention, and claiming my own humanity and presence in that space at that time."

-Kiam Marcelo Junio
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:53 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think HomeboyTrouble and UbuRoivas make very good points. Filipino immigrants to the US don't tend to open restaurants for livelihood, so you're just not going to find many Filipino-run restaurants. And then, per Ideefixe's point, most Filipinos tend to prefer to cook and eat Filipino food at home, so there hasn't been a ton of Filipino-originated demand in any case.

It's interesting; many Chinese immigrants open restaurants, and they're not just Chinese restaurants. At least here in the Northeast, you will find that many Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants (for example) are actually run by Chinese immigrants. (Just listen to the languages being spoken by the waitstaff and in the kitchen.) If there's enough demand, there might be more Filipino restaurants run by non-Filipinos.

I don't think, btw, it's because Filipino food is "weird" to non-Filipinos. I think that's sort of an excuse. Authentic Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese etc. food have lots of dishes that are "weird" to non-Asians, yet there's plenty of those restaurants. Those restaurants just don't serve the less accessible dishes and in fact many very popular dishes aren't authentic at all (or are made unauthentically). Same would go for popular Filipino food, should it ever get to be popular.
posted by odin53 at 11:09 AM on May 28, 2015

I keep thinking about this thread, and I was wondering what it WOULD take to make Filipino-American food mainstream.

-An American palate friendly Westernized flagship fusion food.

Americans have been eating chop suey since the 1880s. Sushi, and now, ramen have paved the way for Japanese cuisine. Korean bbq and the taco truck/kimchi fry trend started by Roy Choi are infinitely more popular than chilled melon soups or fishcake with non-Koreans in the US.

If somebody figures out a cheap junk food for the masses, or haute cuisine treat for the Lucky Peach set, that draws on Filipino cooking and hits all the right American flavor notes (and none of the wrong ones or cultural taboos).....we'll see where this conversation is in 20 years.

-A Filipino-American celebrity chef

This one is tougher, but if if there was a Pinoy Roy Choi or David Chang, someone visionary and entertaining and wildly popular and successful, who made addictive stoner food that made you feel fancy, that could go a long way. Calling all chefs.
posted by Juliet Banana at 5:21 PM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Juliet Banana, I agree. And on the celebrity chef point, if Top Chef is any indication, there should be a breakout any moment. Dale Talde is getting there, certainly in the NYC area, at least. (also wanted to note that Mark Manguera, who founded Kogi BBQ truck with Roy Choi, is Filipino.)
posted by odin53 at 7:11 PM on May 28, 2015

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