Until a few years ago, Filipino cuisine flew under the radar in Texas. The state had only a few dozen Filipino restaurants, and if you didn’t have ties to the culture or knew someone who did, this rich, diverse culinary tradition probably wasn’t on your gastronomic radar. I was one of the lucky ones with a friend who is Pinoy, or of Filipino descent, and who introduced me to the wonders of dishes like kare-kare (an oxtail and vegetable stew buoyed by peanut sauce) and lumpia (think a pork-stuffed, taquitolike egg roll).
This is changing. Austin now has a handful of Filipino eateries; Houston, home to the state’s largest Pinoy community, has more than twenty, with a third location of the popular Jollibee chain on the way. In Dallas, Filipino pop-ups used to be the easiest, fastest option for diners looking to sample the Asian archipelago’s cuisine. Then Filipino food experienced a rapid ascendency in North Texas, with numerous openings that included a new Jollibee in Plano last year. D Magazine characterized the culinary trend as coming “out of nowhere.”
It’s perhaps better described as a slow build and sudden spike. The earliest known Filipino immigrant to Texas arrived in 1822 as a cabin boy on a merchant ship; by 1960, the state’s Filipino population was still small, with just over 1,600 Pinoys in Houston and Dallas. But generations of new Filipino Texans followed them, and more than 190,000 people of Filipino descent now call Texas home. A seminal moment for the cuisine in the state was the first Filipino Food Festival at Dallas’s Four Corners Brewing Company in early March 2020, just days before the pandemic shut down events and restaurants. Thousands of people (including me) swarmed the Latino-focused craft beer maker’s property. Lines for lumpia and ube (purple yam) ice cream were exhaustingly long.
One of the vendors at the festival was Ulam Modern Filipino Kitchen, a pop-up owned and operated since 2017 by Filipino American cook Anna Swann. During a phone conversation, Swann recalled that no one expected such a big crowd; her business hadn’t felt stable until 2019, she said. One woman told her she had driven from East Texas just to attend the event.
The pandemic hasn’t slowed things down for Swann, as I observed at a recent Saturday pop-up she cooked for. The event, a collaboration with the Mo’s Plancha Venezuelan pop-up at Trinity Cider in Dallas’s Deep Ellum neighborhood, sold out of preorders in less than 24 hours. That was nearly a week before the pop-up, which was billed as a curbside pickup shindig. Swann made the taco fillings, and Modesto “Mo” Rodriguez made the tortillas. Despite bringing extra for walk-ups, they sold out of everything.
The menu’s standouts were the pork adobo sisig and mushroom sisig tacos. They were the stuff of a taco lover’s dream: large, dusty flour tortillas cradling chopped, grilled pork or mushrooms. Salty, umami pops of soy sauce pushed to the front of every bite. The snap of vinegar was quick on its heels. Fruity notes threaded throughout the filling from the green mango. Garlic was omnipresent from its use in the marinade and in the aioli.
Hosting this event at a cidery made perfect sense. Sisig, a Filipino-style hash marinated in a base of garlic and soy sauce with the addition of vinegar and usually served over rice, is an ideal drinking dish. Salty and spicy, it cries out for an adult beverage. I ate my sisig out of the back of my car in a parking lot across from the crowded pickup spot; I wished I had a drink. The first European report of sisig came from Spanish priest Alvaro de Benavente in 1699. It was transformed by Aling Lucing Cunanan in the 1970s. These days, sisig is usually made with off-cuts of pork, including ears; Ulam chef-owner Swann, a transplant from California, makes hers with pork shoulder. It’s a fantastic substitute that retains the desired juicy and crispy textures. The shiitake mushroom version was especially tender. Each filling was topped with a long hillock of cabbage mixed with the garlic aioli. Slivers of red and green chiles added a steady, lingering spice. The tortilla-wrapped noshes transformed a gloomy January morning into the loveliest of daydreams.
Rodriguez’s tortillas were outstanding. Although he is Venezuelan by birth, Rodriguez moved to Texas when he was eight years old; he grew up in North Texas and in Midland, where he graduated from the recently renamed Robert E. Lee High School. During our conversation, Rodriguez made it clear that West Texas’s flour tortillas, gossamer thin but sturdy, left a lifelong impression on him. He fondly recalls the tortillas at Oscar’s Super Burrito in Midland. Rodriguez nailed it at the Ulam collaboration; he clearly knows Tex-Mex cooking. He made the dough, which includes lard and butter, and rolled out each tortilla with a wood rolling pin at his station on the Trinity Cider patio. Back and forth with hands and a tool that knew how to handle the uncooked disc. He still considers himself a newbie. “I’ve been practicing, but I’m still a novice,” he told me.
The successful mash-up of Filipino and Latin American foodways is a natural development. Everything ends up in a tortilla, and the taco makes for the ideal gateway for people who might otherwise be hesitant about trying unfamiliar foods. The Philippines and Mexico (and much of the Americas) were colonized by Spain and were part of the European empire’s far-flung holdings. Between 1565 to 1815, a galleon trading route connected Manila and Acapulco. The same shipping lane brought Japanese and Pacific Islander influences to Mexican food, and vice versa. There is a soy sauce–based salsa that comes out of Sonora, Mexico. Consider Filipinos and Latinos as extended primos (cousins) via a shared colonizer. Many of us have Spanish-language surnames, and different food preparations have also swapped names: In Spanish, adobo is a marinade. In Tagalog (the main language of the Philippines), adobo is a dish. Swann describes the combination of Filipino and Mexican flavors as an innate match. “It certainly didn’t feel forced,” she recalls.
Surprisingly, the Trinity Cider pop-up collaboration was the first time the Ulam team served Filipino tacos. But it won’t be the last. “We’re definitely talking about it after the reaction from [the pop-up],” Swann says. “We’re trying to get some dates and see when we can do it again.” Here’s to more Filipino tacos.