Three Signs That Filipino Cuisine Will Become Mainstream in 2016

During the usual round of food-trend stories at the beginning of the year, Filipino cuisine was cited as one of the big culinary fads for 2016 (and if USA Today spots a trend, you know it’s going mainstream). Metro Denver has seen a few Filipino restaurants come and go over the years; current brick-and-mortars include ChowSun on Aurora’s eastern edge, where I dug into some delicious pork adobo last summer, and Sunburst Grill at Chambers Road and Iliff Avenue.

But it was at a breakfast-and-lunch cafe in the heart of Denver that I found fresh evidence that the recent prognostications just might come true. Onefold, at 18th Avenue and Humboldt Street, is owned by Mark and Terese Nery, who season their menu with dishes like warming rice congee from Terese’s Chinese-American upbringing and other Asian touches. The Nerys just added chicken adobo to Onefold’s lunch slate — and it was this dish that made me long for more Filipino specialties to pop up in Denver restaurants.

“My husband is Filipino, and he grew up with the dish,” Terese explains. “And with two kids, we make it for them at home, and they love it.”

Onefold’s chicken adobo possesses the instantly recognizable tang of vinegar, softened over a three-hour braising time and combined with soy sauce and other seasonings to penetrate the meat all the way to the bone. The chicken thighs and drumsticks, cooked fresh each morning, are served over rice with a side of stir-fried bok choy and thinly sliced serrano chiles. “We like to use bok choy because it absorbs the sauce well,” Terese adds.

The couple also just added a Filipino noodle dish called pancit that the kitchen crew prepares using organic pork (the same goes for the chicken in the adobo dish). The two lunch entrees are a rare find in the Uptown neighborhood, but they fit in nicely with the rest of Onefold’s global offerings, which include traditional pho, Taiwanese beef noodle soup, and tacos stuffed with bacon, egg and hash browns.

Over in the decidedly hipper River North neighborhood, a mobile Filipino food vendor has also found a permanent home. Kathy Poland launched her Taste of the Philippines food cart nearly four years ago, and it quickly became a Denver street-food favorite on the 16th Street Mall and at the twice-weekly Civic Center Eats food-truck rallies during the summer months. At the end of the summer, Poland launched a second kitchen, at the indoor-outdoor Finn’s Manor (2927 Larimer Street), where vendors park next to heated covered patios.

While Poland says business is a little iffy during these cold winter months, Friday and Saturday nights are still a good bet for finding Filipino food there. And once the weather becomes a little more amenable to outdoor service, hours for all of the vendors will be more regular.

As at Onefold, Poland’s chicken adobo is a big seller. “In a typical day, serving 100 people, about half of the orders will be chicken adobo,” she says. “Whenever I don’t carry it, which isn’t often, I get yelled at.”

Her recipe comes from her mother, who was a chef at a prominent hotel in the Philippines. Poland has adapted the method a little over the years to make the sauce less oily and more gravy-like in consistency, and she switched from using chicken breasts to thighs and legs early on, noting that dark meat yields moister, richer meat after it’s cooked for two or three hours.

Poland, who appeared in two episodes of the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen last year, thinks that Denver is ready for more Filipino food because many of its flavors are familiar, having evolved from Chinese, Spanish and American influences. Her two carts serve a variety of other traditional dishes, including rice-noodle pancit, lechon kawali (succulent cubes of pan-fried pork belly) and the ever-popular lumpia — similar to deep-fried egg rolls, but with a thin, crackly shell.

If Denverites are familiar with lumpia, it’s probably due to the efforts of Leah Eveleigh, who sold Filipino fare at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival at Sloan’s Lake from 2003 to 2010. Thousands of customers lined up each summer to sample her cooking; particularly popular was a dessert lumpia filled with banana and topped with chocolate and caramel sauces. Eveleigh also tried a brick-and-mortar location, opening the Tropical Grill in Aurora in 2007, but she sold it after just a year.

Coincidentally, Eveleigh has also made an appearance on Cutthroat Kitchen; in fact, she was the first Denver chef to make it onto the show. (The episode was filmed in 2013 and aired in 2014.) After winning her episode, she enrolled in the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder. Most of her classmates were younger and wondered why a professional cook would enroll in a culinary school, but she says she saw it as a way to “improve myself and learn something new. Now when I say ‘Chef Leah,’ it’s like I’ve earned it.’”

After graduating from cooking school, Eveleigh accepted a job on the line at Fire, the restaurant in the new Art Hotel at 1201 Broadway. She was able to utilize her newfound French culinary techniques there, but she also found herself yearning to get back to cooking traditional Filipino dishes. So she left the hotel in December, and while she’s running a catering business and offering private cooking classes (you can reach her at 720-339-5252), she’s also perfecting her baking recipes — like fluffy pan de sal bread — with a goal of opening a Filipino restaurant and bakery. It will focus on breakfast and lunch, she says, and serve dishes that go beyond lumpia and chicken adobo. For example, Eveleigh would like more people to try her kare-kare, a type of curry made with oxtail and eggplant in a peanut sauce.

When Eveleigh moved to Denver in 1999, there wasn’t much Filipino cuisine to be found. “Even back then I thought Filipino food was underrated — and under the radar of American food tastes,” she recalls. But now she thinks the cuisine of her home country is ready to take off in Denver: “People like trying something new and different, and like tying that into the culture and the people.”
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation