A few years back, food journalists called the swell of Filipino restaurants opening in the Bay Area a "new wave" — and then watched them quietly close. It was a disappointment. After all, there's a strong Filipino-American community in the Bay Area. So why has Filipino food never hit the mainstream?
Perhaps Filipino flavors won't reach mainstream palettes in a boiling wave, but through a slow, steady accumulation, as more and more first-generation Filipino Americans express the complexities of their heritage through food, creating small, potentially illuminating experiences for others to enjoy. And the newest contribution is Curbside Kitchen, a new Filipino-American fast food truck gaining traction by infusing Filipino-American flavors into burgers, fries, and tacos that are by turns revelatory, confusing, and delicious.
Filipino-American fusion isn't wholly unfamiliar or unsuccessful: Señor Sisig is noted for its singular insertion of the Filipino dish of sisig into its tacos and burritos. But the approach of Curbside's co-owners, brothers Raynard and Russell Lozano, is a little more footloose. Perhaps that's because Filipino culture has a history of contact with all kinds of traditions — Chinese, Malay, Spanish, American, and Mexican. The menu includes an adobo banh mi, as well as a yucca-breaded chicken sandwich with a Latin twist — inspired by Russell's trip to Brazil with his wife. Russell and Raynard's mother worked at Nation's Giant Hamburgers for a number of years, so fast food also played prominently in their lives.
The truck's melting-pot approach makes its concept a little difficult to grasp. Curbside Kitchen? The name doesn't indicate that it's Filipino-American. Banh-mi? That's Vietnamese. You could turn your brain into a pretzel trying to find some coherence on the menu. However, the concept does allow for creative freedom and for cultural collisions that can, at times, illuminate and celebrate both cultures.
Curbside's adobo tacos are one of those items. It's all about balance — playing off the typical taco flavor palette of meat, onion, lime, and lettuce, while using ingredients that are familiar to Filipino-American homes. The crisp, tonifying element of lettuce came from mung bean sprouts. And the hit of lime you'd expect in a taco? That came from the adobo itself, with its pungent flavor of rice vinegar. A small spoon of pico de gallo and cilantro brightened the mixture. In that case, Filipino flavors found a pride of place and turned out in an interesting and compelling way. I found it to be something of an affirmation of "Filipino-ness"— maintaining the culture's culinary cache against what's already familiar here in the food scene, with dignity and deliciousness.
Curbside's loaded fries were less of a hit for me. The fries were topped with the Filipino breakfast meat tocino, jack cheese, aioli, and cilantro, with a hit of tart tamarind dressing to boot. They were tasty in the way any hot plate of fries covered in cheese and bacon might be. But the tocino's flavor and texture, which traditionally is garlicky and sticky-sweet, didn't shine. With the tocino minced and rolling in cheese and aioli, the dish was simply too rich, and brought out the tocino's similarity to tenderly cooked bacon instead of highlighting its unique attributes.
Although the tocino in Curbside's burger was similarly mild mannered, I found it more satisfying. The ingredient lent a layer of subtle richness to the thick, Angus beef patty, which was itself lightly marinated in soy sauce, black pepper, and other spices. This, with the addition of the marinated onion topping the burger, reminded me of how Filipino families commonly season their hamburger patties with minced onion, black pepper, and bell pepper. An addition of pickled carrot and daikon gave the burger a sunshiny sourness that lightened it. With aioli applied to both sides of the patty, which was juicy enough to be just a tad messy, the burger hit all the right notes of sweet and tart. It was crave-worthy.
Curbside's Green Light salad tasted less thought out. All started well with tomato, cucumber, bean sprouts, arugula, grilled chicken, and a flash of pickled daikon — the arugula gave a peppery, heady aroma that went well with the sweet prickle of vinegar. But with the addition of cilantro and a creamy dressing, the salad threw me. Plus, there was a layer of finely shredded Monterey cheese that clotted and fused into little clumps on my tongue.
But Curbside offers more interesting food than it does confusing food, and it's widened my idea of how Filipino flavors can be used to unusual effect. I feel optimistic yet again for the possibility of a stronger presence of Filipino flavors in our food-obsessed area.
One last item of note: The brothers didn't touch their mother's recipe for lumpia, which was as authentic as it came. While many Filipino-American catering outfits skip the traditional ingredients of shrimp and water chestnuts, Curbside doesn't — a rare thing.