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Filipino food: Why all the mystery?

Filipinos represent perhaps the largest group of Asian Americans in the Seattle area, but it has been hard to find a restaurant serving their homeland's food. Is Filipino food finally on the verge of the attention it deserves?

Lugaw with beef is served at the Family Time Restaurant

Lugaw with beef is served at the Family Time Restaurant Hugo Kugiya

A sizzling skillet of sisig, a Filipino dish sometimes eaten after a drinking session.

A sizzling skillet of sisig, a Filipino dish sometimes eaten after a drinking session. Hugo Kugiya

Jerry Romero in the kitchen of the Family Time Restaurant. It's time to bring Filipino cuisine to general attention, Romero says.

Jerry Romero in the kitchen of the Family Time Restaurant. It's time to bring Filipino cuisine to general attention, Romero says. Hugo Kugiya

People of Filipino descent represent one of the largest if not the largest group of Asian Americans in the Puget Sound region, numbering between 80,000 and 120,000 depending on what estimates you believe.

Results of the 2010 census are still being processed, but I am betting they will bear out the larger figure. (The 2000 census measured those of Filipino origin to be the largest group of Asians in the state, but second in number to Chinese-Americans in Seattle.) Subtle and obvious signs point to a robust and growing community of Filipinos in the area, not the least of which is the recent opening of the state’s first Seafood City supermarket (which I wrote about in August) in the Southcenter mall along with its accompanying Filipino franchises like Jollibee and Chowking. Together they have transformed the far end of the mall into a version of Little Manila.

The area’s large Filipino population also presents a conundrum. With so many people, and in theory potential customers, there are so few Filipino restaurants in Seattle, which is home to a relative bonanza of Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, even Korean restaurants. If logic prevailed, we would have dozens of Filipino restaurants instead of the handful around King County (the Inay’s chain in Chinatown and Beacon Hill, Kusina Filipino on Beacon Hill, Kawali Grill in the Rainier Valley, Oriental Mart downtown, and Atrium Bistro near Northgate).

Deepening the mystery is the high number of Filipino cooks and chefs working in restaurants all over the city, all over the country, all over the world in fact. The chef of the most important home in America, the White House, is a Philippine-born, naturalized citizen named Cristeta Comerford, who was named the executive chef of the White House at the start of George W. Bush’s second term. The Obamas kept her on. Like her boss, Comerford, who was educated and trained in the Philippines, was a cultural first: the first female, and first non-white chef to run the White House kitchen.

The hospitality industry — restaurants, cruise ships, casinos, hotels — depends largely on Filipino labor, which the country exports by the millions. Those immigrants are said to contribute nearly $20 billion a year to the economy of the Philippines by sending money home to relatives. Plenty of Filipinos are working in or running restaurant kitchens. They are just not cooking Filipino food. (When Comerford arrived in the U.S. 25 years ago, she worked in a Sheraton hotel restaurant near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.)

"By nature we love to cook," said Jerry Romero, whose family owns the newest Filipino eatery in town, the vaguely named Family Time Restaurant in Shoreline, located in a strip mall at North 152nd Street and Aurora Avenue North. "Because, we love to eat too.

"In California (where most Filipino-Americans live) there are a lot of Filipino restaurants, but there are no Filipino restaurants around here. It is very frustrating. Just Denny’s and IHOP. We can't take it anymore."

Motivated by the scarcity, Romero, his wife, Aliw Romero, and a few business partners opened Family Time about one year ago next to the popular Old Village Korean restaurant, on a stretch of Aurora that begins to announce the prevalence of Korean businesses at that latitude.

Jerry Romero, whose family lives in Lynnwood, has cooked most of his life. He grew up in Manila and ran a Filipino restaurant for 16 years on the tiny island of Saipan in the Northern Marianas chain, about 1,500 miles east of the Philippines. In Seattle, he drove a school bus, and cooked briefly at a hospital cafeteria and at the Sixth Avenue Bar and Grill, in the downtown hotel of the same name. While filling orders for burgers, grilled salmon, and fettucine, the same thought often wandered through his mind, that if people had the chance to try Filipino food, they would probably like it.

"Our main goal was to cater not just to Filipino customers but to introduce our food to everyone," said Romero, whose dishes are made from his family’s recipes. "We want people to know that we have good food too."


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Nov 12, 11:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Just a few years ago I wouldn't have included Korean in a list of Asian cuisines for which Seattle was enjoying a "veritable bonanza" of restaurants, but their numbers do seem to have increased sharply. Of course, Koreans have been operating restaurants in the area for quite a while — many of those Japanese restaurants you mention are run by Koreans, and even some of the Chinese (you've written about the latter). But they've begun to promote the fact that, for example, University Teriyaki also serves jajangmyun, and Ichiro Teriyaki also serves bibimbap. And Korean restaurants billed as such have been on the upswing.

Why not Filipino? I'm not sure. I wonder if it has to do with student populations? Growing up, we hardly ever went out for Korean food — why do that, when we could have it so much better at home? (Korean-Chinese, of course, was another story.) Now, though, every other student at the UW seems to be Korean from Korea (I exaggerate, of course), and their mothers aren't available to cook. Perhaps Filipinos likewise prefer to eat their own cuisine at home, and since, as you note, their flavors haven't quite been Americanized yet, there isn't enough demand from other Seattleites?

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