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?

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

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?

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."

His customers, once exclusively Filipino, are now an even mix of natives and non-Filipinos. Family Time is a simple establishment set up diner style with café chairs, and a glass dessert case by the front door. A few wood carvings are hung on the walls. Placemats of woven fiber are assigned to each seat, but little else about the way the restaurant looks on the inside suggests the type of food it serves. A giant, flat-panel television is mounted in a corner, a quirk typical of immigrant-owned restaurants (sports bars aside) be they Ethiopian, Peruvian, or Korean. Watching television in your own language is a comfort not easily duplicated. On this night, a Filipino version of "So You Think You Can Dance" is on, featuring various several crews of teenage, hip-hop dancers from various rural villages around the country.

Far more than a lunch counter like Oriental Mart in the Pike Place Market (reviewed here in January), Family Time is that rare full-on, Filipino restaurant for Filipinos who want real Filipino food. Its menu features about two dozen regular items and a daily special. On weekends it serves five more specials including sisig ($10.95) the beloved and legendary dish often eaten late after a night of drinking.

Sisig is not a tame dish and would horrify the tofu and wheatgrass crowd. It is a kind of hash made with various pig parts, ear, snout, cheek, liver, heart. Romero throws in a little beef tongue too. The meat is boiled, chopped, then fried on the same skillet it is served in, topped with a raw egg.

If eating organ meat is your thing, weekends are the time to go. In addition to sisig, Family Time serves bopis ($10.95), sautéed pork heart and lung, and papaitan ($10.95), a beef tripe stew. Filipino food is not exactly delicate cuisine. It is hearty, country cooking, peasant food like that of other countries with a history of colonization and subjugation. Cuts of meat can be fatty. The heads, tails, and entrails of animals end up in the pot. Visually, the food is not arresting. It is not colorful like Thai food, or artfully arranged like Japanese food. It is what a lot of people think of as comfort food, stewed, deep-fried, boiled down, brown or beige, and oily.

The Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, and the Americans have all colonized or occupied the Philippines, an archipelago of some 7,000 islands between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Recipes are very diverse, according to region, almost haphazard in their origins and influences. Filipino cuisine, like Indonesian and Malay cooking, uses lots of tropical produce, seafood, and fermented shrimp.

Many dishes are adaptations of Chinese specialties, like pancit ($9.95), pan-fried noodles that come in several versions, and lugaw ($5.95), a Filipino rice porridge that resembles congee. Filipino beef stews like mechado ($8.95) and caldereta ($9.95) resemble Spanish dishes. American influences are evident in Filipino favorites like Spam and spaghetti, both of which are served Filipino style at Family Time.

The regional variety is what makes it difficult to operate a Filipino restaurant, Romero said.

"Filipinos are hard to please," he said. "If the taste is not just right, they don't like it. Everyone cooks at home. We all make adobo (the universal, Filipino preparation of meat using vinegar, soy sauce and garlic), but everyone has a different style."

To please all comers, Romero originally planned a menu seven pages long before deciding it would be too difficult to offer such a wide variety of dishes. He does most of the cooking himself. Aliw Romero makes the tocino (cured pork) and longaniza sausage (similar to chorizo) herself; both are breakfast staples. Like all good diners, Family Time serves breakfast all day, dishes like tapsilog (cured beef), Spam, fried milkfish and sausages, all served with eggs and garlic fried rice, a standard side dish of every meal.

The charm of Filipino food is that it has yet to join the mainstream, which also might be its shortcoming. Many types of Asian food have entered the mainstream, introduced by accomplished Asian-American chefs who have made high-end cooking out of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese cuisine. The meticulously prepared southeast Asian food served at the Seattle restaurants Monsoon and Wild Ginger would have seemed wildly exotic 25 years ago but seem familiar and ordinary today.

Which leads us back to that enduring mystery of Filipino restaurants. With so many Filipino people, so many Filipino cooks, why so few Filipino restaurants in Seattle? It might be that regional pickiness Romero spoke of. Part of the reason might be that the Filipino population has not yet reached a critical mass in this region, although they are relatively scarce even in Honolulu where there are far more Filipino people. Perhaps something about the Filipino spirit prevents them from enjoying and therefore excelling at operating restaurants; the people I know who do it make it sound like a thankless grind. It might be that Filipino cuisine has not yet been sufficiently altered and Americanized the way Chinese food and Thai food have been; Filipino flavors — they are strong, musky, sour — do not line up with the American predilection for sweet and spicy.

The most intriguing theories, however, pertain to cultural identity. Filipinos are famously good at assimilating. They assimilated to their Spanish occupiers by converting to Catholicism; they adopted to their American occupiers by learning to speak English, now one of the country’s two official languages. Filipinos work and live in Taiwan, Japan, the U.S., Australia, the Middle East, Europe, and anywhere else their jobs might take them. Comerford, the White House chef, is but one, albeit famous, story of Filipino assimilation, the second youngest of 11 children who grew up in Manila and learned to cook in fancy, Western hotels in Chicago and Vienna, Austria.

But the flip side of assimilation is an apathy toward one’s native culture that sometimes comes through as reluctance or even shame. The intense aromas and unusual composition of Filipino cooking are perhaps not as easy to share in a public setting. Safer to prepare and eat it in the safety of a church picnic, a birthday party, or a home kitchen.

"It' time," Jerry Romero said, "to introduce our food to other people."

If you go: Family Time Restaurant, 15200 Aurora Avenue North, Suite C, in Shoreline,, (206) 365-0706. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at