clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How American Restaurants Are Courting Filipino Palates — and Vice Versa

American restaurants are huge in the Philippines. Why not the other way around?

Tammy David/courtesy Wildflour

Sitting inside Walter and Margarita Manzke's popular French-leaning Los Angeles restaurant République, with its Instagram-worthy tiling, hefty wooden tables, and open kitchen, you might be surprised to learn that you're actually enjoying a little piece of the Philippines. That's because there is a République of sorts in Manila, complete with its long pastry counter and winding queue of eager diners. Even the Courier-font menu in Manila is a near-mirror image to the one you might be holding in Los Angeles, filled with dishes like shakshouka and a decadent croque madame. It's the sort of hearty late-morning weekend fare that's well-known within L.A.'s prodigious brunch community, but might otherwise seem out of place in Southeast Asia.

A bit of cultural appropriation or outright brand thievery? Not exactly. The restaurant, called Wildflour, is the happy work of the Manzkes themselves, and it's as busy — and as comfortable — as any of the best places you'll find on the West Coast. Except this is Manila, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, filled with economic disparities and infrastructure issues and an absolutely booming urban population, eager to stand side-by-side with the biggest cities in the world.

"They know everything that's going on in the world, and they want it more than anyone."

"[Filipinos] are so connected to the internet," Walter Manzke says from the private dining room at République in Los Angeles, where much of the wood and tile was imported straight from the Philippines. "Moreso there than even here. Even for the poor, they know everything that's going on in the world, and they want it more than anyone."

He and Margarita, Walter's Philippines-born wife and a pastry mastermind in her own right, should know. The Manzkes currently co-own three Wildflour restaurants across Manila (more are in the works), along with two other concepts that they operate with the help of Margarita's sister and husband, Ana and Jay De Ocampo, plus chef/partner Alen Buhay. Later this year, the team will even be partnering with the iconic Pink's Hot Dogs family to bring the well-known Hollywood brand to at least one location in a bustling section of Manila known as the Fort — but not as a fast-casual takeaway stand. Like with everything they do there, the Manzkes and their partners are aiming hard at the emerging younger, wealthier Filipino class, mixing craft cocktails and table service with the same tried-and-true dogs that Americans (and thus, Filipinos to a large extent) have been craving for decades.

Republique, Los Angeles. Photo: Daniels/Eater

Pink's Hot Dogs, Kent Kanouse/Flickr; Republique, Daniels/Eater

To understand the impossibly strong cultural and culinary bonds between the United States and the Philippines, it's important to look back at the history of the 7,000-island nation, which for centuries suffered at the yoke of one great global power or another. Regional influences from Thailand, China, Korea, and Japan have been appropriated into the mainstream there for hundreds of years, even as a long stretch of Spanish rule gave way to a half-century as an American protectorate and commonwealth in the early to mid-1900s.

Despite a move to independent rule in 1946 (on July 4, no less), many of the country's American appropriations remain largely intact. English is the official second language behind Tagalog, and the unofficial first language in major cities like Manila. The United States military maintained an outsized presence within the Philippines until the early 1990s, with both Naval Base Subic Bay and Clark Air Base occupying hundreds of square miles apiece. Much like in Korea, a taste for American foodstuffs found on base, from Spam to breakfast cereal, quickly embedded itself within the local Filipino culture, eventually migrating into the larger urban pockets like Quezon City and Manila.

By the 1990s, lots of Filipino kids were growing up with Saturday morning American cartoons and big bowls of Frosted Flakes, just like their counterparts half a world away; it was only the view outside the living room window, where bitter politics and corruption made for an uncertain future in the Philippines, that things differed.

Today, the more-politically-stable nation is hungrier than ever, powered along by a young and motivated workforce with billion-dollar winds at its back, thanks to gale-force investment by the likes of China and the United States. The nation long ago supplanted India as the world's foremost call center destination for places like the U.S. and continental Europe, and high rise urban density is fueling a Chinese building boom that's only been strengthened by infrastructure gains in the wake of several years of flooding and other natural disasters. Manufacturing is up, and a wealth of untapped domestic resources mean exports could keep growing exponentially for decades more.

The biggest winner of this current Filipino renaissance is the middle class, whose newfound disposable income is being pushed into restaurants, bars, and casinos in nearly every province in the country. And in reaching for all those available dollars, restaurant owners have begun to hone in on immutable fact: Young Filipinos want to eat exactly what you're eating, and they're willing to pay for the experience.

Wildflour. Photo: Tammy David/courtesy Wildflour.

Less than five years ago, when the Manzkes were first considering going into business with Margarita's family in the Philippines, the climate wasn't quite so certain. "People told us it would never work to open up [Wildflour as] a middle-class restaurant," Walter says. "But... it's become this middle ground that everybody's excited about. I think in a certain way, we were the first people to really tap into that market. We're still one of the busiest restaurants in Manila, and we're the restaurant that everybody's copying. We know that everybody's on our tail, and we're trying to keep our edge."

In truth, competition is coming at Wildflour from all directions. New construction near Manila continues to draw both tourists and wealthy businessmen from across the globe, with a taste for luxury that's only matched by their appetite for high-end dining experiences, ideally with a big culinary names like Nobu attached. And at the lower end of the spectrum, an exploding fast-casual market means more money being siphoned off a few dollars at a time for things like fried chicken and caramel lattes. Starbucks has been one of the biggest emerging brands of the past decade in the Philippines, while stalwarts like KFC have existed for years, but in recent years are witnessing even stronger growth as Manila's flexible middle class seeks out the same experiences — and, in many ways, the same flavors — as any average American.

Why aren’t Americans doing the same thing when it comes to the flavors of the Philippines?

The real question is: Why aren't Americans doing the same thing when it comes to the flavors of the Philippines? Why aren't the nation's midsize cities, already underwritten in many cases by a strong first- and second-generation Filipino population, rising up to demand more and better pork adobo, or a ubiquity of pancit joints on par with America's greatest Chinese takeout spots?

In California alone there are 1.5 million Filipinos, making them the largest Asian minority within its borders, despite the presence of Chinese and Japanese populations that predate the founding of the state itself. Large Filipino-American hubs can be found in places like Seattle, Los Angeles, and even in concentrated parts of Alaska, Wyoming, and South Dakota. So what gives?

It's hard to say. Bizarre eater and de facto culinary anthropologist Andrew Zimmern has been calling for the rise of Pinoy cooking since at least 2012, yet ube and oxtail have failed to become ingredient staples in the average American home kitchen. Some cite the outsized presence of pork in much of Filipino cooking — America is, by and large, a chicken and beef country — while others blame the cuisine's flavor profiles, rich in acids and umami and sour notes.

The cuisine/menu at Seattle's Food & Sh*t pop-up. Photos: Facebook

What Pinoy cooking has really needed is a champion beyond Zimmern, someone to take a city's hand and show its diners the way to great dishes like lumpia, kinilaw, and sisig. Austin found theirs years ago in Paul Qui, the Top Chef champion, James Beard Foundation Award winner, and Food & Wine Best New Chef who hails from Manila. Since opening his namesake restaurant Qui in 2013, the ambitious chef has been working on a patio-only pulutan menu, filled with revealing takes on Filipino drinking food. Dishes are approachable, cheap, and available in mass quantities for groups that have been drinking heavily — all key markers to hit when trying to endear a Texas population to food from several thousand miles away.

In other cities like Los Angeles and Seattle, which already have some of the largest Filipino populations in the U.S., a groundswell of support from Filipino-Americans working in the food industry have led to a growing network of hidden pop-ups and one-off dinners at some of each city's most popular restaurant destinations.

For Seattle there's Food and Sh*t, a monthly Filipino pop-up held at Inay's that's become one of the most popular culinary stories of 2015. Geo Quibuyen and his wife Chera Amlag began running the casual dinners 18 months ago after struggling to find the Pinoy food they loved. Now they're turning out hundreds of sisig tacos and pan de sal pork belly sliders at a time, feeding as many people as they can — and often still turning folks away.

In Los Angeles, commercial kitchens are full of Filipino-Americans who work as line cooks, sous chefs, and beyond. They're the ones turning out fresh plates of tagliatelle or duck confit at restaurants like République, but eating chicken adobo for staff meal. For first-generation brothers Chase and Chad Valencia, the lack of a cultural connection to the food they were both cooking started to weigh on them. "At some point, I was just looking down and for the 80th time it was pasta in the pan," says Chad. "And I'm thinking, 'Why isn't this pancit?'"

So they started their own pop-up called LASA, an occasional dinner series now held at a small event space called Elysian in Frog Town, a rapidly-changing neighborhood alongside the LA River. People drive from as far away as San Diego just to experience their cooking firsthand, though both Valencia brothers are quick to point out their own inauthenticity. "We're cooking and creating Filipino-American food," says Chase. "That's what we have to remind people. We've only cooked in California-style kitchens, so whether it's trendy or not, that's what we know." LASA's pop-ups often sell out well in advance of their actual date, and sous chefs who have worked dinners with the brothers are now starting to tackle their own Filipino-influenced events in places like Orange County. More importantly, they're attracting a different crowd.

"It's our generation doing the cooking... we're attracting a different crowd because it's being presented in a whole new way." — Chad Valencia

Just like Walter Manzke's Wildflour in Manila, pop-ups like LASA in Los Angeles are focusing their efforts on the young, hungry urban middle class that's eager for something new. "We're learning that, really, it's our generation doing the cooking," notes Chad. "Our parents aren't the ones opening these restaurants. They're not doing LASA, it's people our age. So there's a different approach, a different model. And we're attracting a different crowd because it's being presented in a whole new way."

A growing customer base spells good news for Filipino cuisine, which is looking to shed its fledgeling status and join in on the billion-dollar American restaurant market in a big way; there are even non-profits dedicated to the cause. Give it a few years of combined momentum, and you might just start to see takeout pancit and lumpia spots popping up in small towns all across America. And maybe someday sooner than expected, you'll be able to walk into a Pinoy restaurant in Bend, Oregon, or Ogunquit, Maine, and think, for just a moment, that you really had been transported to the Philippines after all.

Eater Video presents: Hugh Aceson cooks Nachos from Kris Jenner's cookbook