At the James Beard Awards last week, Tom Cunanan of Filipino restaurant Bad Saint in Washington, D.C., took home the medal for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. He gave a heartfelt speech of the kind one often hears at such award ceremonies, up until the very end. “Mabuhay!,” he concluded, a Tagalog word that means different things: welcome, to life, live great, hello, and victory among them, he says.
It was possibly the first time Tagalog had been spoken on this awards stage. Filipino food has a growing presence in this country, with more restaurants and cookbooks celebrating a cuisine that has been influenced by Chinese traders, Mexican settlers, and Spanish and American colonization. Still, it is hard to come by. Filipino Restaurant Week is currently underway, through May 26. It started in 2015 with 13 participating restaurants, and this year showcases 24, from six states and D.C.
Massachusetts is represented by one, Tanám, which opened in January. That’s one more than we had on last year’s list. When I ate at Bad Saint this past winter, co-owner Genevieve Villamora came by our counter seats: “Did I overhear you’re from Boston?” she asked with excitement. “There’s a Filipino restaurant opening there soon called Tanám. I can’t wait!”
And Tanám is exciting. For the Filipino friends I bring with me to eat, who have long waited to see dishes like adobo and kare-kare represented on local menus. For those just becoming acquainted with this cuisine, and by happenstance one another, gathered around a single table in the intimate Bow Market space in Somerville. The restaurant is a project from Olio Culinary Collective, a worker-owned, socially conscious group largely run by women of color. It grew out of a pop-up called Pamangan, hosted by member and chef Ellie Tiglao, and it still feels like a scrappy, hand-hewn production, ever-evolving and challenging itself.
Meals are mainly ticketed, available in several formats. A prix fixe menu ($90 per person) is available Friday through Sunday nights, with two seatings each night. Wednesday ($70) brings a kamayan feast — a lavish spread on banana leaves, eaten with the hands and shared communally by everyone at the table. Late-nights and on Thursdays, there is an affordable a la carte menu of snacks and drinks.
Tanám’s food is described as “narrative cuisine.” Meals here are constructed to be delicious, but also to tell stories about Filipino food, culture, and identity. The first one I attend is called Chibog — Tagalog slang for “mealtime” — and billed as an ode to the first Pamangan pop-up in 2014. It begins with sugba kilaw, a dish that brings together traditional techniques (grilling; cooking in acid, a la ceviche) and Filipino and local ingredients in unexpected ways. In a white bowl, fresh slivers of mackerel sidle up to smoky, cross-hatched Berkshire pork belly, along with mango, ginger, coconut vinegar, and smoked coconut milk — the flavors and textures building one upon the other.
The second course, sinigang chawanmushi, finds a middle ground between tart Filipino stew and savory Japanese custard. Hake belly is served over a loose, eggy, tamarind-inflected base, with water spinach and triangles of green and white daikon, decorated with a lacy pea sprout. The first dish is a bold mouthful of smoke and acid; this one is more delicate. It’s followed by a salad of Maine rock crab, ginger-turmeric dressing, shaved Brussels sprouts in fish-sauce vinaigrette, lychee, and fried shallots, another tumble of flavors turned out with a deft hand. Tanám’s dedication to sourcing shines throughout, both in the fresh, local seafood the menus emphasize, and in ingredients that are a challenge to find outside the Philippines.
A version of kare-kare, the traditional oxtail stew, is the final savory course: the segments of oxtail stacked vertically atop a crisped rice cake in a pool of peanut sauce, with bok choy, Japanese eggplant, and long beans tied into a sailor’s knot. On the plate is a little mound of pungent shrimp paste, its flavor distinctive, umami-rich, and powerful. It feels like a belated rejoinder on behalf of every kid who was teased in school for her “stinky” lunch: Try it. You might just find it as delicious as I do.
It isn’t until dessert that the pace falters: black sesame polvoron, a shortbread that is too crumbly-dusty in texture; a finely curdled flan topped with golden kiwi custard. It’s too bad, but it barely diminishes what has been an exhilarating meal, showcasing interesting ways to think of Filipino food in America, as well as Tiglao’s personal cooking style. Throughout dinner, she sits down at the table, to talk about what we are eating, answer any questions, and hang out for a bit, another guest at the dinner party she has helped create. There are smart, interesting wine pairings from bar director Kyisha Davenport, along with unique cocktails such as the Death, Trapped (ingredients include intensely black pepper-infused brandy, the citrus kalamansi, and MSG), and the E$pera (made with the Chinese spirit baijiu, lime cordial, green Chartreuse, and bitter melon, like a Last Word with a long, astringent finish). When it is time to go, Tiglao hands each guest a box to take home. Inside: all the fixings and a recipe to make the noodle dish pancit at home.
Kamayan is a completely different experience — also delicious, but more celebratory than cerebral. Tiglao and crew cover the table in banana leaves, then spread it with a snaking bed of white rice all down the center. Nestled into the grains are the spring roll-like lumpia, skewers of chicken, hunks of pork belly, whole lobsters, in-season razor clams, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, mango halves and a hollowed-out pineapple filled with chunks of its own innards. There are bowls of mussels, vegetables in coconut milk curry, and an array of condiments that are integral to this cuisine: Everyone seasons each bite to her own taste. The only thing there isn’t, seemingly, is utensils. We scoop up rice with our fingers, dunk, slurp, drink, talk, and get very, very full.
The next five-course meal I experience is titled “Makasese,” or “to care for.” As the description reads: “This menu specifically considers the movement to reclaim ancient Filipinx food and herbalism traditions while living in the diaspora.” (The term Filipinx is inclusive of all gender identities.) Courses are labeled with numbers in Kapampangan, one of the languages spoken in the Philippines.
The first is a version of adobo, the soy-and-vinegar stew that is a hallmark of the cuisine. Here it is made with squid ink, squid, octopus, and poached tomato, each ingredient separate in the bowl: two small, dark brown squid bodies, two hillocks of rice, a sweeping purple curl of octopus tendril, a few spoonfuls of broth. Next: tasty little frog empanadas with green mango relish and thick, creamy dollops of parsnip puree. Then a take on tinola, made with razor clams and mussels; usually a cozy soup, it is so spicy here that only one person at the table can finish it. “We have hot sauce-eating contests at my office,” she says with a shrug. A salad of Little Gem lettuce with salt-cured egg yolk, fiddlehead ferns, and green strawberries is a refreshing follow-up, a spring cousin to the Caesar that feels familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Dessert is a little pie of young coconut that might have baked a little longer, with very nice guava tea-leaf ice cream and a long curl of dark chocolate.
This meal isn’t as satisfying to eat or as fully realized as Chibog was, although the dishes are still interesting. A focus on herbalism is such an intriguing premise; I would have loved to see it better explicated. If part of the joy of Tanám is that it is still developing, that may sometimes be a liability, too.
But it is a joy — to share this food around a table, to listen to Tiglao talk, to eat a story encoded in a meal that communicates something at once personal and cultural. It is not at all the sort of restaurant one wants to reduce to a number of stars; it is an experience, and if it is for you, you will know it after reading this.
1 Bow Market Way, Union Square, Somerville, 617-669-2144, tanam.co All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Prix fixe $90 per person. Kamayan $70 per person. Bar snacks $5-$12.
Hours Wed Kamayan at 5 and 7:30 p.m. (late-night menu 10 p.m.-midnight), Thu 4 p.m.-midnight, Fri-Sun prix fixe at 5 and 7:30 p.m. (late-night menu 10 p.m.-midnight). Purchase tickets in advance online.
Noise level Conversation easy, and encouraged.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.