I first met Yana Gilbuena at Four Quarters Brewing in Winooski, Vermont, back in June of 2014. At the time, she was in the middle of her original SALO Series, a 50-week tour of all 50 states, cooking Filipino kamayan meals at every stop.
Even diners steeped in Pinoy cuisine may have never eaten kamayan-style if they haven't had one of Gilbuena's dinners. What is it? Gilbuena presents multiple dishes on banana leaves, and diners feast sans utensils. In 2015, Gilbuena hit each of the Canadian provinces, spreading her kamayan gospel. Later this year, she's setting out on a culinary trek across South America. But first, she's taking up a two-month-long kitchen residency at Boheme Café & Wine Bar in Montrose. Last night was the first of her Tuesday-night meals and she'll serve them every week through May 31.
Gilbuena is calling the series "Hayop," or animal, a reference to her signature locavore, snout-to-tail cooking. Each week, she'll source a different beast from a Texas farm. Last night, Hayop number one focused on baboy, or pig. With that ethic at work, sisig was a must. The dish, usually sizzling when served, was conceived to make use of "fifth quarter" leftovers such as pig's head. Gilbuena's version included strips of ear and fatty chunks of cheek, but also chicken livers, all brightened with calamansi (a tart Filipino citrus fruit) and spiced up with Thai chiles.
The dark liquid in the cup pictured above is pork blood, which provides the thick, iron-suffused base for pork stew dinuguan. Gilbuena's version is smoother and spicier than other versions I've tried, a pleasure to eat. My favorite dish of the night was one new to me, even after a month spent eating at 10 Houston Filipino restaurants for our April issue.
Gilbuena's humba is atypical, though. Usually, the sweet dish is on the sticky side, more like adobo. But her cheffed-up version is a light braise, flavored with pineapple and star anise. It was a subtle, natural wash of sugar that imbued the fall-apart-tender spare rib on my banana leaf. The pork was topped with crispy banana blossoms, too.
How do you pick up a stew without utensils? Sticky rice! Gilbuena's sinangag was fried with chunks of garlic and sweetened with coconut. To avoid saccharine overload, the mounds of rice were accompanied by strands of carrots and daikon pickled in piquant coconut vinegar.
Yep, there was more. But there doesn't have to be. I went for the $65 full tasting, but mortals who don't have my gustatory death wish can elect to order one dish for $15 or two for $28.
Still, that might have meant missing the crispy ginataang liempo, cut into thin slices so all the crisp, coconut-imbued pork belly didn't overwhelm. It was paired on my leaves with Gilbuena's Valencia-orange-soaked tocino. Tina Zulu, the Houston PR maven who helped arrange Gilbuena's residency at Boheme, told me that she's been pressuring Gilbuena to use the sweet pork shoulder dish in a Filipino brunch. If she succeeds in persuading her, I'll be back.
Fortunately, SALO is ushering in a return of kitchen takeovers at the atmospheric bar. I ran into Selven O'Keef Jarmon while dining last night. He kicked off his own Wednesday pop-up series last week. To promote and raise funds for his Montrose Boulevard-based 360 Degrees Vanishing installation, he's presenting South African meals paired with South African wines. Tonight, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Shakti Baum of Etta's Little Kitchen is serving up lamb or mushroom bobotie with yellow rice and chapati. A different chef will take a spin with the exotic flavors each week, ending with a meal crafted by Jarmon's mother, he says.
Clearly, some surprises will be popping up at Boheme, even after Gilbuena has hit the road.