If you wanted Filipino cuisine a decade ago, you largely had to head out to spots like Manila Mart in Beltsville, Maryland or Fort Washington’s Kabayan Filipino-American Restaurant.
That changed in 2015 when Purple Patch in Mount Pleasant and Bad Saint in Columbia Heights opened and became two of the first Filipino restaurants in the District. The latter—a slender spot that draws epic lines—earned a slew of awards, including the No. 2 “Best New Restaurant” in the U.S. from Bon Appetit and a James Beard Award for Chef Tom Cunanan, who has since left and plans to open his own Filipino restaurant.
These days, those in the mood for a taste of the Southeast Asian archipelago have lots of options: Kaliwa at The Wharf, Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly in Rockville, The Game Sports Pub in Adams Morgan, and Pogiboy inside The Block food hall downtown. Now a pair of recurring pop-ups aim to delight fans of Filipino food:
As a child, Erwin “Wing” Villarias helped his mother prepare chicken arroz caldo, similar to rice congee and popular on the lush island of Palawan in the Philippines where he was born. Making the homespun dish helped inspire a lifelong passion for cooking. When he moved to the U.S. in 2013, he wanted to work as a chef, but no one would give him a chance. His luck changed three years later when he impressed the team at Maketto and earned a spot in their kitchen. From there he collaborated with Tibetan Chef Dorjee Tsering on the Immigrant Brothers pop-up series at Big Bear Café in 2019, and then cooked at Coconut Club.
His latest pop-up series, Balangay, is solely focused on the food of his homeland, and will run for the next one to three months based on popularity. The à la carte menu starts off with a selection of bar bites ($8-$14): chicken-stuffed lumpia, slow roasted pork belly accompanied by fried fingerling potatoes and coconut tamarind sauce, and ceviche-like kinilaw that tosses together raw salmon, fermented chile sauce, mango, and red radish.
Inspired by a six-month stint of veganism, Villarias prepares three plant-based appetizers, including mushroom-centric pancit and grilled eggplant with black garlic sauce, cherry tomatoes, and crispy yucca.
Main courses ($14-$18) include two Filipino classics: fried chicken adobo and grilled chicken inasal marinated in ginger, lemongrass, and cilantro. The chef calls the latter “the basis of most of my cooking.” For dessert there are two options—sticky rice with turon and caramelized plantains enlivened with rum, which evokes Bananas Foster.
Though he’s focused on the pop-ups for now, Villarias hopes to open a restaurant one day. “That is the dream,” he says. “Even if it’s very small. That’s what I want.”
Pop-ups run Thursdays through Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m. Just bar bites are available on Sundays. Find Balangay inside Bullfrog Bagels located at 1341 H St. NE. Reservations encouraged.
The word “hiraya” means “fruits of one’s hopes and dreams” in Tagalog. It’s a fitting name for Chef Paolo Dungca’s forthcoming Filipino restaurant, which he aims to open next year in partnership with Tiki TNT owner Todd Thrasher. (Dungca says they’re looking at spaces near the new Amazon headquarters in Arlington, Navy Yard, and Penn Quarter.) It’ll be inspired by what he grew up eating in the Philippines. “But, I want to interpret Filipino food the way I see it,” says the veteran of Restaurant Eve, Bad Saint, and Kaliwa. He currently runs the Filipino fast food joint Pogiboy with Cunanan.
Dungca’s four-course preview dinners—with an optional cocktail pairing from Thrasher—will be a blend of tradition and playful irreverence. Take these examples. An opening bite is a play on palabok, a noodle dish bolstered with shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, rich pork-shrimp broth, and cracklins. Dungca incorporates all the flavors into a deviled egg instead. Cassava cakes are usually a sweet dessert, here they’re the savory base for melted lardo and smoked trout roe. His riff on bistek features beef treated with a Japanese mold called koji topped with onion soubise with yeast for “that cheesy parmesan taste” and dehydrated onion powder. His version of Key lime pie finishes the meal, subbing in calamansi for the citrus component. He also uses saltine-style SkyFlakes crackers from the Philippines for the crust.
Pop-ups are scheduled for October 13, 20, and 27 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m at Tiki TNT located at 1130 Maine Ave. SW. Dinner is $75 per person and the optional cocktail pairing runs $40 per person. Reservations are required.
For diners who want to sample even more of Dungca’s work, he is participating in A Taste of the Philippines on October 23 at The Block food hall at 1110 Vermont Ave. NW. The event celebrates Filipino American History Month. Diners can purchase a tasting box featuring dishes from Dungca, Cunanan, Purple Patch’s Patrice Cleary, and others. Order before Oct. 11 and pay $65 per box. Dungca will also sell dessert and boba tea separately.