Island eats emerge on the mainland

Filipino and Hawaiian dishes are emerging on mainland menus in familiar formats.
sweetfin poke bowls

Fusion cuisine got a bad rap when too many chefs tried to combine too many disparate flavors  into too-ambitious dishes. Ill-conceived mashups of Japanese with Mexican or Italian with Thai triggered a rush back to authenticity for many customers and operators. But fusion can be authentic and compelling—both from a taste and business standpoint—when it comes naturally, as it does in Hawaiian and Filipino cooking. Perhaps that’s why several trend forecasters have called out these cuisines as ones to watch in 2016.

Fast casual with a Hawaiian twist

Hawaiian is the latest regional “new American” food that’s getting its place in the spotlight, according to the 2016 Trends Report released by Andrew Freeman & Co. While American diners long have been familiar with luaus and mai tais, today’s chefs are delving deeper into the cuisine, which fuses Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Pacific-islands elements.

Higher-end restaurants are where most of this experimentation is taking place, but fast casuals are adapting Hawaii’s popular snack—poke. The cubed raw fish preparation, typically served in a deli cup over white rice, is getting a modern makeover by a few concepts.

sweetfin salmon poke

Santa Monica-based Sweetfin Poke is capitalizing on fast casual’s build-your-own-bowl trend, giving poke bowls a California accent by using Central Coast fish and local, seasonal produce. Customers can start with a base of kale salad or kelp noodle slaw as well as the traditional rice, then layer on cubes of raw fish (salmon, yellowfin tuna, snapper) and a housemade Asian-inspired sauce such as creamy togarashi, ponzu lime or white soy—the latter classic Hawaiian. “Guests can further customize their bowls with up to 20 add-ons, including wasabi-toasted coconut, crunchy seaweed, macadamia nuts and pickled mushrooms, all chosen for their umami characteristics,” says Sweetfin chef Dakota Weiss.

“Poke is the natural progression of sushi for Americans,” says Seth Cohen, Sweetfin’s co-founder. Couple that with the current popularity of bowls and salad bars, he says, and he predicts growth ahead for this Hawaiian specialty. In fact, Sweetfin received a fresh round of funding in January and plans to open five more locations in 2016.

Fusion at the bar

A similar Filipino staple has not yet grabbed the fast-casual market, but Filipino food is gaining ground in two other hot categories: bar snacks and shareables. King Phojanakong, who opened New York City’s full-service Kuma Inn in 2003 “when people didn’t even know where the Philippines was,” he says, launched Tito King’s Kitchen at Jimmy’s 43 last July. His goal: to revitalize that restaurant’s bar menu, adapting Filipino dishes to small plates that pair well with beer, wine and cocktails.

tito king food

“I’m mainstreaming the food a bit more at Tito King’s than I did at Kuma Inn, updating and transforming it into more accessible bar snacks,” Phojanakong says. Chicken Wings Adobo ($12)—his version of Buffalo Wings—are braised in soy, garlic and vinegar (the typical Filipino pork adobo preparation) then thrown in the deep fryer to crisp. Pork Belly Tacos ($10) are flavored with garlic, fish sauce, palm sugar and vinegar, then topped with Thai chili-lime salsa and housemade pickled daikon. Both offer authentic Filipino flavors in familiar formats.

Tito King’s Halo-Halo Fries ($12) are the biggest stretch as a crossover,  Phojanakong says. Halo Halo, which means mixed together, is the Philippines’ famous shaved ice dessert, topped with beans, gelatin and fruit. Phojanakong’s savory version, which looks like the original, is a combo of housemade french fries topped with black beans, ground pork, bonito flakes and Japanese mayo—kind of like a Filipino poutine.

Marketing translates the food

The Halo-Halo Fries represents a contemporary fusion of Asian and Spanish—the cultures that long dominated the Philippines. During World War II, an American influence filtered in. Billy Dec, a multiconcept operator in Chicago whose mother is Filipina, also taps into this mix at his polished-casual restaurant Sunda.

When Dec was growing up, Filipino dishes were available only at mom-and-pop restaurants, he says, and the cooking was very traditional and homey. “We are modernizing the traditional by upgrading ingredients and techniques and elevating  presentation,” Dec says. Filipino dishes represent about five percent of Sunda’s pan-Asian menu.

To raise awareness about those dishes, Dec staged a Filipino Heritage Month last October, providing menu cards that relayed stories about the items and running weekly specials. Sunda’s executive chef and partner Jess DeGuzman, a second-generation Filipino who also grew up in Chicago, says the promotion got servers excited about selling the food and encouraged customers to try it.

sunda ceviche

Newbies are steered toward shareables such as lumpia, the Filipino version of egg rolls, and kinilaw, a ceviche cured with kalamansi juice, a citrus fruit native to the Philippines. But weekly specials included more authentic dishes made with tripe, innards and oxtail, which appealed to more adventurous diners.

“Many Filipino dishes have a sour flavor profile that’s popular now,” says DeGuzman, citing adobo in particular. Even so, he usually tones down the sourness to appeal to the majority.

“The food is still a bit foreign to Americans because Filipinos emigrated later—not until the late 1960s,” adds DeGuzman. “The Chinese and Japanese were already here, and people are much more familiar with that food. But that’s changing. Filipino cuisine is finally catching on.”


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