The bitter melon salad at Bad Saint does not mess around. More acerbic than coffee with the added saltiness of preserved black bean, the Filipino dish with soft pieces of egg and crunchy bits of fried shallots makes no apologies or compromises to the American palate.
If you aren’t familiar with Filipino food, other new tastes might include ukoy, battered and fried strands of sweet potato, leeks, and mini shrimp whose beady black eyes peek out from the crunchy tangle, begging you to drag them through the sour dipping sauce. Another specialty that ran out early on a recent weekend: a grilled tuna jaw with sweet tender meat clinging to its boomerang-shaped bone. The dish tastes like a pork rib of the sea—its richness countered by a squeeze of lemon and sea salt imported from the Philippines.
Already, people have been lining up to try dishes like these at the no-reservations, 25-seat Filipino spot, which opened just last week at 3226 11th St. NW in Columbia Heights. These often pungent, funky flavors are totally “in,” after all. But owners Genevieve Villamora and Nick Pimentel chuckle when asked about Filipino cuisine being called trendy or “D.C.’s next ‘It’ cuisine,” as Zagat recently dubbed it. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and Baltimore, respectively, their native food was anything but.
“It was really, for me, hard to share the flavors with other people,” Pimentel says. “It’s a cuisine that’s really hard to describe.” It’s easy to see why: the food is a melange of sweet, sour, and salty flavors with influences from throughout Southeast Asia, Spain, China, and beyond. And it’s not the kind of food that kids with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their lunchboxes tend to embrace.
“I felt almost protective of it,” Villamora says. “I loved it so much that I didn’t want to see or hear other people say anything bad about it. And so to prevent that from happening, I just didn’t share it with them. It was almost too painful… I felt I’m already so outrageous and strange as it is, why would I exacerbate that at all?”
Chef Tom Cunanan likewise shared that experience: “I’d have friends who come over, they see tripe, they see intestines, they see the odds and ends, and they smell the vinegar that’s cooking over on the stove. It’s just like, ‘Oh my god, what is that smell?’” he says. “You’re just like, ‘Oh, it’s Filipino food.”
But within just the past year, Filipino dishes have popped up on a number of local menus. Alexandria fine dining spot Restaurant Eve now serves a Filipino-Asian tasting menu alongside its regular one, and Mount Pleasant’s Purple Patch offers Filipino specialties next to burgers and a macaroni gratinée. Meanwhile, 14th Street’s Provision No. 14 features a braised then deep-fried whole pork leg called pata, and Bethesda’s Urban Heights serves chicken adobo and egg roll-like lumpia on its Asian-Pacific menu. A pop-up called Kalye is bringing even more Filipino recipes to EatsPlace through January 2016.
Bad Saint, however, is the first full-time restaurant in the District devoted exclusively to Filipino food. Cool, Villamora says, but not their motivation for opening the place. “It’s more how do we do the food justice… If anything the pressure that comes from being among the first, it’s a responsibility. A lot of people haven’t had Filipino food before and if we mess this up, they might never want to eat it again,” she says with a laugh.
Before getting into restaurants, Villamora spent a decade working for a range of social justice nonprofits. When she decided she wanted a break, she got a job at Big Bear Cafe to figure out her next move. “That was eight years ago,” says Villamora. She stayed in the industry working front-of-house gigs at Komi, Little Serow, and Room 11, where she met Pimentel, who’s an owner in the Columbia Heights restaurant and has helped design a number of other bars and eateries.
Room 11 is also where Pimentel was introduced to Cunanan, who was looking to get a job there as chef in 2012. He ultimately didn’t get hired, but because of their Filipino connection, Pimentel kept his contact info. An alum of Ardeo + Bardeo, Vidalia, Nopa Kitchen + Bar, and other kitchens, Cunanan ran a part-time catering company focusing on Filipino food at the suggestion of his mom. “She’s a phenomenal cook, and she was always giving me recipes, writing stuff down for me,” he says.
In early 2013, Pimentel went to a wedding in New York where he ran into some old family friends. They told him that Filipino food was “exploding” in New York, and two restaurants, Maharlika and Jeepney, even had lines to get in. “I’m like, ‘Huh?’ It got me really intrigued,” Pimentel says. The next day he visited both of them. “I saw my generation of Filipinos doing something really cool in these really rad spaces,” he says. When he got back, he told Villamora he wanted to open up a Filipino restaurant.
“I was freaking out when he said it, because I had been following Filipino restaurants across the country just on my own,” she says. She was so into following them that she kept a file of various Filipino restaurants from Los Angeles to Chicago.
Villamora credits the rise of Filipino cuisine in America to a new generation of second generation immigrants returning to their roots through food. The trend isn’t necessarily exclusive to Filipinos. Plenty of chefs and restaurateurs are now taking a fresh look at the cooking of their heritage. For example, Minibar alum and chef Katsuya Fukushima embraced his Japanese background with the opening of Daikaya, and the owners of French restaurants Café Bonaparte and Malmaison channeled their Afghan roots in their new Adams Morgan restaurant, Lapis.
Villamora points out that when an immigrant community arrives in a new country, preparing food is something they can easily do without having to speak the language. So maybe they open a little mom-and-pop restaurant to pay the bills. But as the community becomes more established, that’s not the only way to earn a living anymore.
“We’re not that mom-and-pop generation, because we’ve had opportunities and we’ve had the chance to have other jobs,” Villamora says. “And so our approach to having a restaurant is really different because we’ve worked in the industry and other mainstream places. And I think this is happening across the board with Filipinos.”
At the same time, representing Filipino food as a whole is almost an impossible job. After all, the archipelago is made up of a fragmentation of languages, religions, and cultures. The country is defined by its intense regionalism, and that’s also reflected in the food.
One of Villamora’s favorite dishes growing up, for example, consisted of crabs cooked in coconut milk with ginger, lemongrass, greens, and chilies. Her husband, who’s also Filipino, had never seen or heard of it before. “You could grow up thinking, ‘Oh yeah, my family, we cook legit Filipino food. This is what all Filipinos eat.’ And then you meet another Filipino, and they don’t eat anything you ate growing up,” she says. That’s been true of Cunanan, Villamora, and Pimentel, who all grew up with different dishes as our Filipino staples. The menu is amalgamation of their experiences.
The decor of Bad Saint is also highly personal, and much of the knick-knacks and art that fill the dining room’s nooks and crannies are borrowed from the owners’ families. “My mom doesn’t know that I have half of this stuff,” says Pimentel, who also recently designed interiors at Crane & Turtle and Petworth Citizen.
Bad Saint has created a shrine on a top shelf in the dining room, an homage to Filipino homes that have a family altar with photos of relatives, a candle, a prayer card, or maybe a statue of the virgin Mary or the baby Jesus. There are photos of both of Villamora’s sets of grandparents on their wedding days, as well as photos that some servers have contributed of their own families.
The restrooms are a different kind of shrine. Growing up in the ’80s, Pimentel would trade punk cassette tapes with kids in the Philippines. He scanned copies of the zines that they would send with their tapes and blown up the images on the bathroom walls.
Other tributes to Filipino culture might be less obvious to the casual observer. The ceiling is made up of sheets of rusted steel whose cutout patterns mimic rare woven baskets from Mindanao, an Island in the Philippines where Pimentel’s father is from. Meanwhile, a ridge between the windows and the counter seating is lined with 1940s Mahjong tiles made of bamboo and bone.
“Filipinos love to play Mahjong. It’s like a total addiction,” Villamora says. “I can hear the sound of the tiles click-clacking from parties that I grew up going to as a kid… There’d always be some smokey little room in the basement where the adults were eating pork rinds and smoking and playing Mahjong and drinking beer. And the kids were not allowed in there, but we’d always peek in there.”
All of which is to say the place doesn’t look “hip.” It’s cozy. From the smoke that fills the air from the woks in the open kitchen to the cramped dining counters, the place is meant to feel more like you’re stepping into someone’s home rather than the city’s coolest new restaurant. Trendy is not what Villamora and Pimentel are going for.
“I don’t think we want to be another trend. We want to be around for a while… People are always chasing the next new thing, and so it’s easy enough to have a line for three months,” Villamora says. “But we have our eye on the long game.”
Correction: This post initially misspelled the name of the forthcoming pop-up Kalye.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery