An oft-predicted trending cuisine, Filipino food already arrived. We just don’t know where to look.
Where are the Filipino restaurants? They’re right there. And there. And here. Arlington. Fairfax. Springfield.
They were there long before Bloomberg News (“Filipino Food Is the Next Big Thing—Again”) and The Washington Post (“At long last, Filipino food arrives. What took it so long?”) and Los Angeles magazine (“Filipino food is having a moment.”) declared Filipino food is trending. It’s as if mainstream America suddenly discovered fields of lumpia (spring rolls) and rivers of pancit (a noodle dish) in the great golden age of hipster Asian food. Or maybe they just got tired of Thai.
This area is home to a handful of Filipino restaurants, notably the exciting and sexy Bad Saint and Purple Patch in the District, though most in NoVA are of a more casual bent. Filipino food and restaurants, formerly unknown at best and denigrated at worst, have become alluring, coveted and beloved by both Yelpers and glossies; Bad Saint ranked second in Bon Appetit’s 2016 best new restaurants list.
Economics dictates more should open, diba?
Growing up in Northern Virginia, I enjoyed Filipino food through family cooking, community picnics and turo-turos (literally “point-point”), cafeteria-style buffets where guests point at food and a server dishes it out and rings it up.
My family, usually with my mom’s friends, would eat on Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils next to aisles full of bagoong (shrimp paste), Spam, SkyFlakes saltines and Mama Sita spice mixes and sauce bases. This style of serving food is commonly found in small Filipino groceries around the world and, until recently, was the most common type of Filipino restaurant in NoVA. Munching away on jasmine rice and adobo (braised meat in vinegar and soy sauce), I’d hear my mom’s friends ask each other, “Why are there no Filipino restaurants in the area?”
In 2009, I investigated this childhood mystery for my anthropology thesis. But when I mapped 11 establishments in the Metro-D.C. area (six in NoVA), the question became, “Why do people say there are no Filipino restaurants, even when they’re eating in one?”
A reason for this confusion is the Filipino concept of home clashing with an American concept of business in the cultural establishment that is a restaurant.
Customers wanted home-cooked meals like they remembered from their mothers, titas (aunts) and lolas (grandmothers). But living in Northern Virginia, Filipino customers were often rushed in the commute or were too tired to cook. Filipinos adjusting to American life set up turo-turos for their fellow kababayan (countrymen), where even if they couldn’t get the experience of the homeland, they could still get the familiar flavors of sinigang (tamarind stew), dinuguan (blood stew) and crispy pata (deep-fried pork hocks). No frills, no fusion.
Restaurants that were not turo-turos, such as Little Quiapo in Arlington (now closed) and several in Maryland, served classic Filipino dishes and did not attempt to create an exoticized experience of the Philippines for their customers. No one hid the karaoke machine from view or turned off the TV with the Tagalog game show. These spaces were for Filipinos to feel comfortable, a reconstructed and extended version of the home and the homeland.
Three of the six restaurants from my study have since closed, but others popped up: Bistro 7107 (Arlington) opened in July 2013, and The Corner Q (Lorton) opened in May 2016. These are not turo-turos: In a down-to-earth and pleasantly decorated space, you can order dishes beautifully garnished yet simple and heartily portioned.
When I conducted my study nearly 10 years ago, the Filipino restaurants were run primarily by first-generation immigrants. The nationwide rise in Filipino cuisine appears to stem partially from the second generation looking to celebrate their heritage and identity in the American restaurant scene. As convenient as turo-turos can be, having your food presented as something special makes a huge difference in a customer’s experience.
Tess Herradura, co-owner of Corner Q with her daughter, Mary, says Filipino food “is equally delicious compared to … four- or five-star restaurants. I think it’s time [Filipino restaurants] are not turo-turo.” But she also wants her customers to “feel like they are eating at home.”
In the same vein, Solita Wakefield, manager of Bistro 7107, says, “We believe it’s time for the American market to know about our diverse cuisine, as well as for the Filipino community to have a place to dine.”
While more American-style restaurants serve Filipino food, there has always been a handful of Filipino restaurants in the area—if you are willing to think of a restaurant as a counter operation inside of a grocery store.
A brief list of where to find Filipino food in NoVA
513 23rd St. S., Arlington
The Corner Q
8170 Silverbrook Road, Lorton
Fairfax Inn Restaurant
2946 Sleepy Hollow Road, Falls Church
Fiesta Springfield Oriental Store
6230 Rolling Road, Springfield; 703-913-9820
Filipino Global Supermarket
5509 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-1961
7230 Nathan Court, Manassas
Manila Oriental Market
7026 Commerce St., Springfield; 703-379-0595
Philippine Oriental Market and Deli
3610 Lee Highway, Arlington; 703-528-0300