The word spread quickly through the foodie grapevine: Bad Saint—a snug 24-seat restaurant in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood—was very, very good. But it didn’t take reservations. The line outside started forming at 4:30 p.m., an hour before the place opened for dinner. That still didn’t guarantee a seat.
Then Bon Appetit named Bad Saint the #2 Best New Restaurant in the U.S. for 2016. Now, getting in requires an epic wait and the kind of logistical planning worthy of Navy SEAL Team Six.
So what exactly are the dishes sending Bad Saint fans to foodie heaven? Try sinigang stew, pancit noodles, chicken adobo and fried ukoy fritters—mouth waterers you might not have heard of, unless you’re a Filipino.
Follow that savory aroma of fried garlic, and it’ll lead you to other D.C.-area restaurants making their mark with Filipino fare. Think Purple Patch, in Mount Pleasant; Bistro 7107, in Arlington; and Timpla, a pop-up supper club. Filipino dishes also appear on not-exclusively-Filipino menus at such places as TenPenh Tysons and Cathal Armstrong’s forthcoming Kaliwa at the Southwest Waterfront (scheduled to open in fall 2017).
“It’s such an exciting and positive time for the Filipino food scene in D.C., mainly because people are so much more supportive and willing to taste our food,” says Rita Cacas, who organized a Philippine food symposium at the country’s embassy last fall.
“We grew up with only a handful of cafeteria-style ‘turo-turo’ food shops, and even fewer full-service, sit-down Filipino restaurants,” says Katrina Villavicencio, a co-founder of Timpla supper club. One of these early pioneers was the now-closed, white-linen Manila Restaurant, on M Street in Georgetown, where former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos sang at a 1991 private dinner hosted in her honor.
Another Filipino-American pioneer has been feeding presidents at the White House: Cristeta Comerford has been executive chef there since 2005. (As of press time, President Trump hasn’t named a new executive chef.) “Previous generations paved the way. New generations are willing to take bigger risks,” says Villavicencio.
Started by four Filipino-American millennials who met at a family party, Timpla dinners take place in locations throughout D.C. The intimate gatherings of about 10 to 15 people feature a five-course menu of Filipino dishes updated with contemporary culinary techniques. For example, at one recent dinner, Timpla chefs transformed balut—the infamous street food consisting of a nearly fully developed duck embryo boiled and served in its shell—into the more palatable-sounding “potato espuma cooked in duck stock and topped with crispy duck skin.”
Although visitors to D.C. will need to join Timpla’s e-mail list to find out when the next pop-up dinner is taking place, the organizers do send announcements several weeks in advance, so there’s time to plan a way to work it into your Washington visit. “Our dinners reveal what D.C. is like, because they take place in houses throughout the city and are hosted by locals,” says Villavicencio. “You’ll get a peek into the underground dining scene and be in the company of residents of all different backgrounds, occupations and interests.”
Purple Patch is less underground than Timpla and can accommodate more diners than Bad Saint. Co-owner Patrice Cleary is half-Filipino and half-Irish and grew up in Massachusetts learning how to cook Filipino dishes from her mother. When Cleary opened her restaurant in 2015, her mom’s home cooking served as inspiration. Customer favorites include Mama Alice’s lumpia (fried spring rolls made from her mother’s recipe) and sisig (marinated pork belly and shoulder served on a sizzling platter with bird’s eye chili, onion and a raw egg). The restaurant’s popular weekend brunch gives a taste of Filipino food’s sweeter side with ube (purple yam) pancakes and champurrado (chocolate rice pudding).
“Our food represents history and culture that has been shared through generations. What we are able to do now is showcase more of our cuisine, which maybe we were more apprehensive about when we first started,” Cleary says.
Realtor Manny Tagle also wanted to feature traditional Filipino fare in an upscale way when he opened Crystal City’s Bistro 7107—named after the number of islands that make up the Philippines—in 2013. Serving Philippine flavors “with a twist,” Bistro 7107 features dishes such as crispy pata (pork leg), kare kare (oxtail in a peanut sauce) and pancit (a rice noodle dish).
Tagle also owns Sweet City Desserts, a bakery (“home to the ube cupcake”) in Vienna, Virginia, so don’t pass up pastries at Bistro 7107. Sample the “sans rival” (a layered meringue with cashews) or the cassava cake.
How do D.C.’s Filipino restaurants compare with those in other U.S. cities? “It’s about on par with New York and the West Coast,” says James Beard Award-winning food writer Todd Kliman, “although Bad Saint may be the best of the bunch.”
Whether Filipino food is a flash in the pan for D.C.’s faddish diners or a lasting addition to the city’s restaurant landscape remains to be seen. But Purple Patch’s Cleary has no doubt: “We are definitely here to stay.”