Philly needs more Filipino food. It's a sentiment that's being shared more and more by locals as of late, whether it's my rattling on about the food I grew up eating or The Inquirer's Craig LaBan pointing out the dearth of options in his most recent online chat: "Philly needs some good Filipino cooking. We really have almost none."
Aside from the weekends-only Philippine Jeepney Grill, in the Northeast, and a handful of eating/shopping options in the suburbs, there isn't much going on that is accessible to the greater public.
If you ask me, this has less to do with numbers — Filipinos, after all, are the second-largest Asian immigrant group in America, aside from the Chinese — and more to do with mentality.
Filipino cuisine, that amalgam of Malay, Latino, Chinese and American influences, has always been more closely associated with home cooking than the restaurant game. Many members of the older generation are content to share the cuisine among their family, church or social circles, and don't see much need to spread it beyond those perceived cultural borders. Lucky for Filipino food lovers and those eager to learn more about the cuisine, then, that the scene is being emboldened by a new wave of Pinoy culinary energy.
Modern Filipino restaurants, run by young, energetic first- or second-generation chefs and front-of-housers, are appearing everywhere — Maharlika, Jeepney and Pig & Khao in NYC; Milkfish, in New Orleans; Lamesa, in Toronto.
Pelago — think the second half of the word "archipelago," describing the 7,000-plus islands of the Philippines — is a collaboration among Audrey Claire chef Lou Boquila; Jill Encarnacion; Resa Mueller, GM and bartender at Audrey Claire's sister restaurant, Twenty Manning Grill; and photographer Neal Santos.
The four, who served two full-up seatings totaling 70 diners on Feb. 23, aren't looking to simply re-create traditional dishes, though they're all familiar with the classics. (Encarnacion's family previously ran Manila Bay, a popular Northeast Philly restaurant that closed in 2011.) Instead, Pelago's goal is to manipulate the distinctive flavors of the Filipino canon into something a little more unexpected.
Boquila applied a fine-dining eye to many of the plates on his introductory menu. Pinakbet, a vegetable stew that's typically a rustic, one-pot affair, came out artfully deconstructed, the binding bagoong, or fermented shrimp paste, served in the form of an aioli. Adobo, the Philippines' famous national dish, is as straight-up as they come, nothing more than meat braised in a big-flavor combination of vinegar, black peppercorns and bay leaves. Pelago's version featured tender pork shank pulled from the bone and abutted by garlic confit and arancini-like rice balls. Afritada, a dish that most often consists of chicken cooked in a tomato-based sauce, got a high-end update from Boquila via Hudson Valley duck breast and a tomato-duck consommé poured tableside.
Filipino food is not typically vegetarian- or vegan-friendly, but Boquila made some bold exceptions in this regard, even offering a fully meatless, mushroom-centric version of dinuguan, a divisive pork blood stew. Desserts also touted a non-traditional touch — the spring pineapple cake bibingka came with a streusel made from polvoron, a super-crumbly shortbread-style cookie in heavy rotation during the holidays.
Pelago kept its prices reasonable for its inaugural pop-up, serving four courses for $45. Access, then, is much more contingent on actually landing a table, since they plan to rent small BYOB spaces like Noord's moving forward. (This dinner sold out in about an hour.) They haven't set a date or location for their second pop-up just yet, but the best way to stay on top of plans is to keep an eye on their Instagram and Twitter.
Next one should be interesting, too, as Encarnacion and Mueller are currently in the Philippines, gathering some invaluable motherland intel.