The D.C. area gains another major player in the Filipino food scene tonight when Bistro 1521 opens, replacing the Applebee’s at 900 North Glebe Road in Arlington. Longtime D.C. area bartender Jo-Jo Valenzuela and his wife Christina Valenzuela teamed up with Manny Tagle and Solita Wakefield to bring playful Filipino cuisine and refreshing drinks across the river. Tagle and Wakefield were behind the now-closed Bistro 7107 in Crystal City.
The name of the restaurant, which is nearly 7,000 square feet, is inspired by the year Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines. “Applebee’s didn’t work out for obvious reasons,” Jo-Jo says, adding that Filipino cuisine is hot right now. “This is the right one. This is the first time Filipinos are going to see something this big and full-service. Purple Patch is there, but it’s deep in D.C., and Bad Saint is tiny. So we’re doing something crazy.”
He’s not wrong about the rise of Filipino food. Vogue wrote in June that it’s “the next great American cuisine,” and in the same month, food mega-star Anthony Bourdain characterized Filipino food as the “next big thing in America.” The CNN personality is particularly obsessed with a dish called sisig, which Bistro 1521 serves. Jo-Jo describes it as diced pig ears, cheeks, and pork belly that are boiled until tender and then finished on the grill to crisp up. “Then we add a liver aioli,” Jo-Jo says. “It’s so good.”
Other dishes include classics like lumpiang Shanghai spring rolls, vegetable and shrimp fritters (ukoy), noodle stir-fries (pancit), and cassava cake for dessert. Tagle, Jo-Jo, and a team of Filipino cooks are responsible for executing the savory food menu, while Christina will help with desserts based on her experience making treats for her business Figgypops.
Jo-Jo will handle operations and the drinks, as the bar guru has a long history of winning cocktail competitions. Try a take on D.C.’s signature Gin Rickey called the “Rizal,” with gin and a spiced soda made with guava, calamansi (Filipino limes), lemongrass, and chili. Or, the “Tikbalang” with tequila, tamarind syrup, fresh lime juice, jackfruit foam, and a rim of kosher salt boosted by paprika and other spices.
There are also 16 draft beers primarily from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia with the addition of a series of Filipino San Miguel beers, including the more rare Cerveza Negra.
Down the line Jo-Jo plans to showcase his drinks in a more intimate private event space in the back. “I hate the term ‘speakeasy,’ but I’m going to do something crazy back there,” he says. “That’s going to be my room.”
To start, Bistro 1521 will serve dinner nightly from 4 p.m. to close, but they eventually plan to add lunch and weekend Filipino-style brunch. Happy hour is weekdays from 3-7 p.m. (except for tonight’s grand opening, when the doors will open at 4 p.m.). They’ll also offer catering.
According to Jo-Jo, the new restaurant has a bit of luck behind it, or at least something of a blessing: Tagle’s brother, Luis Antonio G. Tagle, is the Archbishop of Manila. “This happened because of the Cardinal,” he says. “That’s pretty big.”
Bistro 1521, 900 Glebe Road, Arlington; (703) 741-0918; bistro1521.com