A pop-up restaurant celebrates Filipino cuisine
Cafénation in Brighton Center, which typically serves breakfast and lunch items, has been transformed into a sit-down restaurant on this Saturday night. Instead of a barista at the counter, there’s a bartender skewering lychees onto lemongrass. Ellie Tiglao is explaining last-minute seating information to a front-of-house crew of three — one of whom is her mother, Evangeline, known as Vangie. In the kitchen, Ellie’s brother, RJ, takes the lid off a stockpot of shrimp heads that has boiled over. Their father, Florencio, called Rolly, stirs another pot of braised short rib. A crowd is gradually assembling outside the foggy windows.
Tonight’s Filipino dinner for 35 is the fifth sold-out pop-up since last August, organized by the sibling-chef duo. The dinners, which cost $30 to $60 for what is typically a three-course meal, are the inaugural project by the pair, who go by the moniker Kulinarya (the name means “the art of all things food” in Tagalog). With only one Filipino restaurant in Greater Boston — JnJ Turo Turo restaurant in Quincy is open three days a week — the siblings decided to bring their food to the area. Other dishes on this menu include Manila crab cake salad; sinigang, a soup of shrimp stock soured with tamarind; kaldereta, a tomato-based meat stew; lobster macaroni and cheese; and halo-halo, a dessert of shaved ice, flan, and purple yam ice cream. Filipino cuisine is characterized by its layering in a single dish of sweet, salty, and sour flavors, and a blend of influences from Chinese, Spanish, and Malaysian cooking.
Growing up in the Bay Area, the siblings watched their father cook the traditional dishes of his homeland. Rolly was born in the Philippines, and worked his way up from dishwasher to executive chef in Monterey, Calif. “The ethos behind what we do was cultivated from the beginning, with home-cooked meals three times a day,” says Ellie. Her parents’ home was the place her extended family gathered.
Years later, as a student at University of California, Riverside, she and her brother started cooking for family and friends. That stopped when Ellie moved to Boston in 2010 to be a research technologist in a biology lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her brother stayed in California, where he has worked on and off in kitchens.
Ellie eventually left the hospital job, and has since pursued other ventures, including work as a personal chef. Last summer, the siblings thought about collaborating on a pop-up dinner. RJ was planning to visit Boston in August, so they quickly pulled together a menu of kinilaw, the traditional seafood tartare; kare-kare, an oxtail peanut stew; and a trio of desserts, including a purple-yam French macaron with coconut sour-cream filling.
That event, at Somerville’s Aeronaut Brewery, sold out all 20 seats and Ellie found it a welcome cultural touchstone. “Before the pop-up, I only knew one Filipino [here],” she says.
Now the siblings conceptualize dinners together. Ellie is in charge of logistics, and RJ flies to Boston to handle prep and cooking. The series is called Pamangan, which means “something to eat” in Kapampangan, a Filipino regional dialect. They’re talking about a brick-and-mortar location or a food truck.
This comes at an auspicious moment. Vice’s food site, Munchies, and Zagat both published guides to popular Filipino dishes last year, and “Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern heralded the cuisine as “the next big thing.” In spite of that, dishes like lumpia and pancit (fried rolls and stir-fried noodles, respectively) haven’t yet found the ubiquity of their counterparts — egg rolls and lo mein, for example.
“We just need someone to say ‘our food is fantastic,’ ” says restaurateur and author Amy Besa, who opened the former Cendrillon, one of the country’s first upscale Filipino restaurants in New York in 1995, and co-wrote “Memories of Philippine Kitchens” in 2006.
Tonight, for the first time, Ellie and RJ’s parents have flown in to help pull the event together. It’s even their father’s birthday. In the kitchen, Vangie opens a rice cooker and says something to Rolly in Kapampangan.
Valerie Enriquez writes in an e-mail that she has been to every Pamangan dinner, and the food reminds her of home, though often with a twist, as with tonight’s Manila crab cake salad. Its remoulade dressing is made with bagoong, a salty paste of fermented shrimp or fish.
“They remix the familiar with the unfamiliar, or two things that are familiar to different types of people to create something new,” she says. “That innovativeness without-pretension is what brings me back every time.”
The next Pamangan pop-up dinner takes place on March 14 at the Urbano Project in Jamaica Plain. For more information go to www.pamangan.splashthat.com.