Filipino food has been on the cusp of a breakthrough for years. In 2017, the late Anthony Bourdain helped the cuisine gain momentum after he visited the Philippines for his show CNN: Parts Unknown, proclaiming it an underrated cuisine that American palates were just beginning to understand. The late Jonathan Gold, a restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, echoed that sentiment shortly after, followed closely by Andrew Zimmern, who went so far as to declare it the next “American food trend.”
Earlier this summer, Food & Wine Magazine put Pogi Boy, a Washington, DC–based Filipino spot from Tom Cunanan, on its cover. Although that’s surely just a coincidence, the cover treatment came just as the momentum for Filipino cuisine in the Bayou City picked up. Famed international Filipino chains such as Jollibbee, Max’s Restaurant, and Gerry’s Grill have all landed successfully in Houston. Filipino chefs who grew up in Houston and moved elsewhere have come back, bringing their talents with them.
Years from now, will we look back on 2022 as the breakout for Filipino food in Houston? Only time will tell. What we do know is that Filipino cuisine is finally coming into its own in H-Town. Here are three restaurants that are paving the way.
Winner of the 2019 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic for his cuisine at Bad Saint in Washington, DC, Tom Cunanan arrived in Houston with so little fanfare that his presence almost felt like a secret. He was originally here on a consulting basis after fellow Filipino chef and James Beard winner Paul Qui had tapped him to help revise the menu at Soy Pinoy in POST Houston’s food hall. A few weeks later, that consulting gig turned into a full-fledged partnership. Cunanan has since revamped the Soy Pinoy menu with some of the most exciting Filipino food in Houston. There’s a sisig salad, made with pig’s ears fried to a crisp and seasoned with the palm vinegar so prevalent in Filipino cooking; each bite is a crunchy sweet-and-sour joy to the senses. The Best Lechon, an ode to the Cebu-style lechon that Bourdain proclaimed the best in the world, lives up to its name, crispy but light and airy at the same time. Whether you take baby steps and order lumpia (the Filipino version of egg rolls) or go all-in with the giant Kamayan feast platter loaded with a smorgasbord of choice Filipino treats, Soy Pinoy makes its food hall setting seem like a portal to a South Pacific flavor wonderland.
Debuting right at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Be More Pacific may have struggled initially, but it has made a name for itself as the go-to place for tasty, scratch-made traditional Filipino cuisine with a fun, indoor-outdoor vibe. The menu is huge: you can get a comprehensive introduction to Filipino food here. Start with the show-stopping pork sisig, made with pig’s ears and served on a cast-iron skillet with an egg that’s blended in at the table, then add a plate of lumpia, some kilawin (Filipino ceviche), and perhaps some longganisa tater tots to share. Larger dishes like the chicken adobo, kare kare, and Filipino barbecue, not to mention the rice bowls known as “silogs,” are also terrific. Wash it down with Filipino-inspired cocktails like the Kung Fu Pandan—haku vodka, house pandan simple syrup, pineapple, and calamansi juice. And don’t forget the spicy banana ketchup. Be More Pacific makes its own, and not only does it go with everything, but it’s so popular that you can buy bottles to take home.
The local career of Mark Gabriel Medina, a Houston native of Filipino descent, is well-documented. After roles at Kata Robata, Soma Sushi, and the now-closed Aqui, Medina spent time in Tokyo at the Michelin two-star restaurant Narisawa before returning home and opening Houston’s first fully virtual kitchen in the summer of 2019, offering more than 10 genres of cuisine—from burgers to pasta and Japanese rice bowls to Filipino food—for pickup or free delivery (within a seven-mile radius). The Filipino menu is among his top three sellers, and it’s notable for its home-cooked quality—he says he borrowed recipes from his grandmother, his father, cookbooks, and his travels. The most popular dish is the Bicol Express, a lesser-known southern Filipino dish of coconut braised pork with fermented shrimp paste, chili, and annatto. To fully appreciate his food, however, order family-style: get the lumpia, bulalo beef shank soup, Canton pancit egg noodles, and an entrée like the Adobo Ginutang (adobo-style chicken braised in vinegar and coconut) or the Kare Kare family platter. For those who are more adventurous, try the Dinugang, a.k.a. Tsokolate meat (“chocolate meat”), made of pork braised with lemongrass, chili vinegar, and pork blood with charred butternut squash.