Manila Bowl Brings Pampanga to Market Street
"We got to San Francisco and I said to my wife, ‘Why do we have to go to Daly City every time we want to get Filipino food?’”
It’s a quiet Saturday at The Market, in the ground floor of the Twitter Building. Backed by a case of fresh produce -- opposite the service counter of the Kapampangan eatery Manila Bowl -- Jim Harvey Sy recounts how, after years investing in New York restaurants, he came to San Francisco and encountered a completely different food scene.
“The reason I never wanted to open a Filipino restaurant [in San Francisco] -- actually any restaurant … It didn't make sense to me, especially with the population here being one-tenth of New York. I just thought it was an insane thing to do. But eventually this little fire started to tell me to get in, because I'd lived here, and I'd lived here for about three or four years by then -- that whole bug of being part of a restaurant started bugging me.”
What was initially a bug became a solution to what Jim had always seen as a two-fold problem: San Francisco’s smallish population and its relative dearth of Filipino dining options in the heart of the City, despite the large Filipino demographic of residents and workers.
“There are a lot more people in New York City, but there seems to be a much more concentrated population of Filipinos around San Francisco, or the Bay Area in general. The market itself where we are located inside the Twitter building -- there's 8,000 people that go through that place every single day. So you have this concentration of people that's similar to a New York City model, and you have this niche market that's present. I wanted to prove how I could open a restaurant here [in the City] with a simplified model that would work, and the other side of it was just, I wanted Filipino food that was close by, and something familiar that I could order, but that I wouldn't have to travel far away to get.”
That simplified model based around authentic Filipino cuisine solidified his commitment to the project, and also piqued the interest of Chef Aris Tuazon (Ugly Kitchen), just as a food service space came available in The Market inside the Twitter Building.
“Aris and I found a space, and we decided, "OK, let's really look in to see if this could be a possibility.’ It's a whole different concept from a full-blown restaurant where, you know, you have to run it operationally from the bottom up, and this was a situation where it was in a food hall, in which case it was a lot easier,” he says.
The built-in logistics commensurate with the space in The Market allowed the team to put a heavy emphasis on the core of their mission: an authentic Kapampangan dining experience, presented in a modern, fast-casual environment.
“If you really want to break it down to the nitty-gritty foodie scene in the Philippines, where is it? It's Kapampangan. The great part about [Manila Bowl] is that it is centered around Kapampangan food and culture; the people who cook the food, a lot of our staff are Kapampangan,” he says.
It’s a decision that not only reflects some of the favorite flavors of Filipino cuisine, but also the particular lineage of Manila Bowl itself, which links up with one of the Philippines’ most successful restaurants via partner Frances Tanchanco.
“I have the background of the Filipino restaurant industry from the Philippines, and you know, it's in my blood. My mom started the whole Cabalen chain on her own -- and it's about 30 years old now. And Cabalen San Bruno serves as the commissary kitchen for Manila Bowl food. So a lot of our food at Manila Bowl is off of recipes that are straight from the provinces in the Philippines. We try to keep our distinctive Kapampangan Filipino flavors, but we always try to go along with the trends and figure out what it is that the customers really want, and Manila Bowl has kind of evolved with our market in San Francisco,” Frances says.
It’s an evolution that Jim says puts Filipino food first at Manila Bowl, emphasizing the progression of the project without losing sight of the guiding principles and culinary know-how that define Kapampangan cooking.
“Kapampangan is where we start, and then we start changing things around based on, what else do people want? Do people want Bicol Express? That Kapampangan spirit is there in a dish like that, because they are sort of the culinary capital of the Philippines. So it's Kapampangan spirit, but we're not limited to things. We obviously want to make Bicol Express, we want to make Ilonggo food, we want to make food from Mindanao. We want to make Lechon Cebu. So there is that aspect of it. But definitely the core is the Kapampangan spirit -- they are the foodies, they are the experts, and we want them to run with it.”
It’s this expertise and experimentation that they’re excited to be serving up at the UNDSCVRD Night Market.
“There's a dish that we had to take off the menu because people kept asking for it and we couldn't keep it in stock, but it's a five-hour dry rub adobo brisket, sliced to order. We made our own brisket sauce from the drippings. It’s very adobo-y in its flavor but it also evokes traditional American brisket. And there’s the kare-kare that we have at Manila Bowl -- it's been one of our signature Kapampangan dishes. We don't just use oxtail, we also use jowls and beef cheeks, so that's been a big seller, super tender, with a really tasty sauce.”