My nephew and his friend would have been the ideal dinner companions that night. They are millennials who are used to waiting in line for a table at a hot restaurant and, as Filipinos who grew up in America, they would have a different take on Filipino food than their Tito, who moved to this country as an adult, with already a formed Pinoy palate.
But the young ones would rather not brave the DC traffic on a Friday afternoon from the Maryland suburbs. So, I opt to dine with a non-millennial, but with excellent and discerning flavor profile – a trained chef and a journalist.
Wilma Consul moved from San Francisco to DC to work for public radio in 1999. This would be her first time at Bad Saint. She, too, is not a fan of lines, but she waits anyway to meet up with this good old friend.
I arrive a few minutes past our meeting time. “Ang tagal mo! You’re late, ha,” Wilma says. We’ve not seen each other in ages, and instead of a moving and poignant hug, she greets me with arms akimbo and a raised eyebrow.
While waiting in line, we catch up and talk about her days in the Bay Area and the steep real estate, of her involvement in Teatro ng Tanan (“Theater for Everyone”) whose acronym TnT was a pun on undocumented immigrants who were in hiding, and the explosive power of the group. We chat about newsmakers Leni Robredo, Manny Pacquiao, and Jose Antonio Vargas, the most famous undocumented immigrant.
Fifteen minutes into waiting, I look around, and observe that we were the only Filipinos in the queue. Wilma corrects me, and identifies a young couple not far ahead of us. Since she and I know that it’s impolite to point at a person, she does the most sensible and naturally Filipino gesture of pointing with her lips.
A couple of weeks earlier, Wilma had met Tom Cunanan, Bad Saint’s Chef, by chance during her lunch break. In the 1990s, the most famous Filipino surnames in America were Marcos (the dictator) and Cunanan (the serial killer who murdered Gianni Versace). Because of Chef Tom, the infamous surname can now get a cleansing.
5:30 p.m. Doors open. Genevieve Villamora, the co-owner with Nick Pimentel, seats us promptly. Her jet black page boy haircut nicely frames her dark tan face with beautiful almond eyes.
She asks if we had any food allergies. This is the first Filipino restaurant I’ve been to that has asked about my reaction to dairy or gluten. “No, I have none,” I reply. “I’m FIlipino. I eat balut.”
Wilma invited a friend to dine along with us, but didn’t see the text that she and her husband were joining us. When they showed up, Genevieve was kind enough to accommodate, and moved us to a table for four — the maximum party you can have at this 24-seater restaurant.
Mabel and Chris live just blocks away from Bad Saint in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. This is their second visit to the restaurant.
Mabel, a Filipina, and Chris, a journalist who hails from North Carolina, met in Hong Kong while he was on assignment and she was singing at a hotel lounge in Kowloon. After they got married, they moved to DC, where now Mabel is a chef who runs a school cafeteria.
A Caucasian woman takes our drinks order. While the ladies are content with water, Chris and I order beer. Chris orders a San Miguel Pale Pilsen, while I order a Red Horse. I tell Chris that my beer has a higher alcohol content, thus was stronger, and perceived to be more masculine. Ad agencies play on gender stereotypes, and Dante Varona, a brawny action star of the 1980s was the poster boy of the product. It was also a cheaper beer, thus preferred by jologs -- lower-income men who would hang around any street corner.
Restaurants make good profits from wine, beer and spirits, since they can charge a nice mark-up. Imported beer retails at about a dollar each bottle at liquor stores, while Bad Saint charges $7 a bottle. Chris and I consume five bottles each throughout the meal, so the restaurant is making a nice profit from our drinks.
We peruse the menu -- new interpretations of Filipino fare like shrimp fritters, dried beef and bitter melon. We are stumped with the word “palapa” and we readily whip out our smartphones to discover what it means. It turns out that it’s a condiment from Maranao, in southern Philippines.
Shortly after we order our drinks, a young African American man in dreadlocks and an earring comes to take our food orders. Ky studied gender and art history at an elite liberal arts college, and is now taking unsolicited lessons from me on the correct pronunciation of Tagalog names on the menu. “Puso ng saging… ukoy… ampalaya… pinipig.”
Our starter course comes – kinilaw of mackerel cured in vinegar and coconut milk on a bed of grapefruit, similar to the Mexican ceviche.
Before digging in, Wilma wants to make the dining experience truly Filipino, so she suggests we say grace. Amidst the Beyonce pop and the chatter of the nearby tables, we mutter, “Bless us o Lord and these thy gifts…” When the prayer ends, I make the Sign of the Cross, not furtively and hurriedly the way most Filipinos do when they pray at restaurants in MegaMall, but with a grace and flourish that would make Assumption nuns proud.
Wilma is looking for pampaasim. Her latest article for National Geographic.com is on the sour condiments in Filipino cuisine. So she raises her hand to get our server’s attention, which has become difficult in the crowded and busy restaurant.
“Ang sosyal mo kasi e. (You’re too refined),” I tell her. “Here’s how you do it,” and I proceed to do the Filipino “pssst…hoy” to one of our servers, which turns out to be more effective.
The rest of the dishes come in succession, akin to the Spanish tapas way of eating. Instead of the Filipino practice of bringing in all dishes simultaneously at the table, Bad Saint ushers in one dish at a time.
We dig into a salad of greens and pomelo, pansit bihon, chicken adobo with turmeric and coconut milk and a deep fried branzino on spicy greens.
Over dinner, we talk about our past and paths that could have crossed in the homeland.
Mabel and I could have crossed paths in Manila in the 1980s, while she was singing at hotel lounges in Manila, and I was coaching pop bands being deployed to Japan and the Middle East. When I was in college, I was doing part-time gigs staging musical numbers and doing choreography for various groups -- from bank employees dancing for their office Christmas parties to matrons performing for alumnae homecomings. It was the closest thing I could do to fulfill my West End aspirations. A friend had asked me to coach the lounge acts and bands he was hiring for cruise ships and hotels in various parts of Asia. I remember one powerful alto who could belt a few octaves, but had a thick Filipino accent. She moved really well, and I did not have to coach her on choreography; but I ended up giving her lessons on English pronunciation. Instead of “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” I was helping her enunciate “get into the groove….your love to me…ooooh, yeah, baby.” By the end of a few weeks, she was better than Whitney or Cindi.
Shortly after Chris and Mabel met in Hongkong, the couple moved to the US. Chris continues to be a correspondent, while Mabel switched careers and now supervises the food services department at an adult school in DC. Throughout the meal, Mabel and I talk about our respective hometowns, and even pepper our conversation with Bisaya, our native tongues
For dessert, we share a dish of purple heirloom rice, candied apples and pinipig (rice crispies).
We pay the bill and look around the small restaurant. All seats are taken, with about half having one of its lambanog-based cocktails like Balisong, Manila Sling or Zamboanga Zkinnie. It may be a DC crowd of federal employees, foreign-service workers, non-profit program officers, or graduate students. No sign of a Tagalog-speaking table, though. Perhaps this isn’t a spot for Filipinos, the way you rarely see Vietnamese people at The Slanted Door in San Francisco.
Mabel feared that we would smell of Filipino food upon leaving the restaurant, so we check our clothes as we are leaving. A whiff of adobo mingles with the scent of fish in canola oil. We thank Chef Tom and his crew, and congratulated host and co-owner, Genevieve, for running a wildly successful operation. I thank the bar lady for keeping the bottles of San Miguel Pale Pilsen and Red Horse flowing. Finally, I give a pat on our server Ky’s back. I commend him on pronouncing “salamat” correctly, with the accent on the second syllable. I encourage him to keep practicing his Tagalog, and to try new Filipino dishes. Perhaps one day, he too, will eat with a spoon and fork.
Michael Magnaye is the Development Director of Legal Services for Children, a non-profit organization based in San Francisco, and is in-charge of its philanthropy program. He was born in Davao City and eats durian.