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Filipino food, Thai food: What drives the ethnic restaurant market?

I like to think that ethnic communities create their own markets for restaurants, and tend to judge authenticity by how many Chinese dine at a Chinese restaurant, Mexicans at a given Mexican restaurant, etc. Sometimes, however, there seems to be a huge dichotomy between the size of an ethnic community and the number of restaurants it produces. Filipinos and Thais seem to represent extreme examples of this phenomenon.

The San Francisco Bay Area has an enormous Filipino community, more that 323,000 identified in the Year 2000 Census, yet there appears to be only a tiny handful of identifiable Filipino restaurants; menupix.com and menupages.com only bring up a single Filipino Restaurant for San Francisco proper (though I know there are a few more in SF and the South and East Bays). On the other hand, a tiny Thai community (less than 6,000 in 2000) generates many times more ethnic restaurants. Menupix and menupages each list more that 100 Thai restuarants in San Francisco alone, with many more elsewhere in the Bay Area.

I can understand that the enormous popularity of Thai food in the community at large, as well as the relative unfamiliarity with, and lack of appreciation for, Filipino food are large factors, but I would think that the size Filipino community (which, if a City, would be the tenth largest in California) would generate a much larger number of Filipino Restaurants than appears to be the case. Do Filipinos choose to eat at home? When they dine out, do they choose a different ethnic cuisine? Do they not sufficiently respect their own food to really elevate it to a "cuisine?"

It's like to hear any thoughts, as well as other examples. Japanese comes to mind as an over-represented cuisine generally, and in New York, Ecuadorean (80,000 Ecuadoreans in Queens alone) would appear to be an under-represented cuisine

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  1. Interesting thread! I can try to speak from a Filipino American point of view- growing up in the sizable metro DC area, there were at any given time maybe only 2 Filipino restaurants open for business. We'd try them once and they'd go out of business before we could return. Why did they go out of business so consistently? Maybe the small number of restos, combined with the very many styles of Filipino cooking... If the geography of the Philippine Islands has resulted in 170+ languages in one country, imagine how that impacts the cuisine. I bet if my family had found a restaurant with a chef from Pampangas, where my mom's family is from, we'd be there every week, and tell all our friends. Instead, it wasn't a priority and we just ate at home when we wanted Filipino food, and when we wanted to eat out, went for Thai, or Japanese.

    I think Filipino restaurants haven't caught on with Americans as much because of the tendency for Flip restaurants to adopt the "turo-turo" (sp??) model, literally "point point", where there is pre-prepared food in chafing dishes rather than table service. I hear there are a few notable exceptions though - I just received "The Filipino-American Kitchen", a cookbook by a successful Filipina restauranteur from Chicago, and I can't wait to try some of her recipes.

    I hope others chime in with a native Filipino perspective, because it is interesting, especially given that when I mention my heritage, 75% of the time people respond, oh my ______-in law/co-worker/neighbor is Filipino and you guys have the best food! I love adobo!

    1. I lived in the Philippines for 14 years, but worked all over S and SE Asia.

      Filipino food (and my reference point is filipino food in the Philippines) is relatively simple to prepare; and filipinos say that they could do better at home. Much of filipino food does not fit in with North American tastes--lots of salt, few spices or chili, can be greasy, often served at room temperature, few vegetables. Plating and/or presentation is not given much importance. Although adobo is liked by many non-filipinos, dinugu-an may not be as widely acceptable. If I had filipino restaraunt, I'd serve fish sinigang, bulalo, sisig, fresh lumpia, different pancit, embutido and so on--but would not be surprised if a large cusomer base didn't develop.

      Thai food is more complex, more difficult to prepare well, and fits with current North American tastes--spicy, can be light, lots of vegetables, mostly not greasy nor salty, complex flavor combinations, served hot or cold depending on the dish (rather than all at near room temperature). Plating and/or presentation is important.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        Gotta agree, for the most part. My Chinese wife is from the Philippines, and we have a Filipina nanny. The nanny cooks adobo and calderete at home (love 'em!), as well as a variety of noodles and lumpia. She also makes dinagu-an and sinigang soup; not my faves. But, even though there are at least four or five Filipino restaurants in the Toronto area, we never go out to eat at them, ever. We do patronize Filipino stores to get specific ingredients, like macupuno for halo-halo or Magnolia cheese ice cream, but never the restos.

        It might be because none of them are conveniently located, but we've made specific trips to go to Chinese or Japanese spots. It also might be because dishes like adobo and calderete taste better on day 2 (and 3 and 4 and..) than they do when freshly made.

        And, we always order a baby pig for major holidays or visits from family, which wife and nanny fuss over for a few hours before delivering a crispy lechon to the table, but we never go out to eat it.

      2. I think part of the equation comes from the restaurant's willingness to adapt to the palate of the country they're in. For example, Chinese food is very popular in the States -- but there are more people eating things like chicken and broccoli as opposed to congee. Most Thai restaurants in the States don't make their spicy food as spicy as they serve it in Thailand.

        And I do think there are some cuisines/dishes that translate better to the American (or whatever country you're in) than others.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Miss Needle

          You are in New York, I believe. There is an noted upscale Filipino or Filipino-fusion resto in Soho, Cendrillon(?). How "Filipino" is the food, anyway? Does it have enough Filipino cuisine characteristics to educate the novice's palate and draw him or her to real Filipino food?

          Another theory of mine is that there is a latent market for most unfamiliar (to Anericans) cusines that needs to be developed. As much as I dislike "fusion" (I call it the "F" word) fusion-y restaurants can take on an important role in this process.

          1. re: Xiao Yang

            I haven't been to Cendrillon but one of my friends has. She loves it, and she is not a fan of heavy food. Looking at the menu, it does seem like there are a lot of influences outside of the Phillipines.

            That said, my experience with Filipino food comes from home (family used to make lumpia and pancit), a limited number of restaurant experiences (can count on one hand) and eating the foods of several Filipino friends. I wish I could say I liked it more, but I just don't think it's really my thing.

        2. Filipinos love to be ambassadors for their native cuisine. It's small wonder that so many Americans who are even vaguely acquainted with a Filipino through church, work or a social organization have been treated to lumpia, adobo or pancit. In my case, I have capitalized on the popularity of all things fatty and porky in NYC to host numerous fiestas introducing friends to lechon kawali, binagoongan, rellenong manok and, less successfully, dinuguan. I am not alone in this habit. The ex-pat community is largely a nation of cooks. And discerning ones, at that. Too often Filipinos will go to a restaurant only to somberly proclaim, "Eh, I make this better at home." Restaurants open to acclaim in the Filipino papers and die within a year of un-met expectations. It is hard for any restaurateur to please the palates of Ilocano, Tagalog, Kampampangan, Visayan and myriad other diners all at the same time. And though it might not be PC to say so, Filipinos are a thrifty people, not prone to spending their money on eating what they can make at home. The only reason I go to Filipino restaurants now is because my housemates are frightened (literally) of the long beans, shrimp paste and fish I would otherwise keep to cook. I have taken much in the way of backhanded complimenting.

          Which reminds me, Filipinos are also painfully aware of criticism of their cuisine, especially as compared to other Southeast Asian cuisines. It is said that the lack of vegetables in modern cookery stems from the criticism of native foodways by American GIs who called Filipinos grass-eaters. The prospective restaurateur has to juggle the competing interests of appealing to a broad range of American preferences and respecting the traditional cooking that attracts Filipino clientele. The task is almost impossible.

          Cendrillon, the Filipino restaurant in Manhattan you mention, is one example of a successful upscale Filipino restaurant. The chef has responded to some modern preferences, but by-and-large, cooks traditionally Filipino dishes...but for Filipinos like myself (Tagalog/Pangasinense), the food seems fusiony and inauthentic. For Chef Romy Dorotan, however, at least from what his wife, a champion of Filipino cuisine, told me, the recipes are largely traditional to Romy's childhood with an occasional nod to influences from Southeast Asia. But what is native to Romy is foreign for me and while Americans and many Filipinos do indeed love Cendrillon, I am rarely there for anything other than merienda.

          But if all these variables could be managed, I still don't see Filipino taking America by storm. I can see it having limited success, but traditional, homestyle cooking is often greasy, mild and stewy. But Filipinos are the ultimate adapters. My style of cooking blends in the Spanish and Indian flavors I also grew up with to develop the layered flavors I know lie dormant within the cuisine (to which end an Indian-Filipino restaurant has recently opened in NYC's Greenwich Village and a Filipino-Latin restaurant once existed in Chicago to much acclaim). My hope lies in the American-born generation, born with Filipino hospitality in their veins, craving the comforting tastes they know from home, but worldly enough to adapt it to their cosmopolitan palates.

          7 Replies
          1. re: JungMann

            Talagang talaga! Ganda ang mga salita mo! I'll be one of your customers if you open a pinoy restaurant!

            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              On the rare occasion that I cook for Filipinos outside my family, the reaction is usually surprise and revelation. Whereas Cendrillon pushes the envelope with chutneys or a tomatoey kare-kare, my recipes are small "evolutions" in technique or flavor. A cleaner-tasting, less greasy mechado made with brisket instead of larded beef. Binagoongan livened with the addition of sambal oelek and a not excessive amount of corn and olive oils. The sweetness and tartness of dinuguan teased out with piquillo peppers and perhaps a splash of sherry vinegar. And vegetables! Sitao at talong tossed with bagoong guisado and ample garlic in the sofrito. Espinacas a la Catalana with raisins, olive oil and roasted pili (hey, if Arroz a la Valenciana is Filipino...). Lily buds, banana hearts, kangkong (in paksiw, kare-kare and sinigang respectively).

              I am a big believer that Filipino food is inherently flavorful and soulful, but those traits have been obscured by a loss of traditional techniques, excessive use of oil and pre-packaged mixes and an emphasis on quick and easy. Our recipes were developed by generations of personal cooks and wives who spent hours melding flavors in a carajay. Now we try to get dinner done after work and end up with watery sauces and sloppily salty food.

              And so two of my better off friends decided we should open a restaurant. Inspired by San Miguel, we layed out our plans. But our restaurant never opened. Why? Not to trade in stereotypes, but Filipinos are not known for their business acumen. Even in the Philippines, it's the Chinese-Filipinos who are famous for their entrepreneurial spirit, not the everyday Filipinos. Perhaps there is a lack of good business education; perhaps it is a legacy of colonialism; but I would not be surprised if poor business decision-making plays a large role in the number of restaurants that open (or close) within the community.

              1. re: JungMann

                Sounds lie you cook filipino dishes much like I do--lightened up, more flavors, more vegetables, quicker cooking times.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  Everything applies except the quicker cooking times. I "lighten" without purposefully trying to make food healthy. I layer flavors, without trying to mask. That's not a departure from tradition, but a more accurate interpretation of our heritage cuisine. But a simple dinner of chicken and pork adobo will take at least an hour of browning, braising and then additional caramelizing. And if there's goat or beef on the menu...well let's just say I tend to take "slow food" literally.

                  1. re: JungMann

                    You're right about the kambing. My chicken adobo, however, gets a long marinade but a fairly short cooking time.

                    I also time and serve the hot dishes hot, and do pay attention to plating and/or presentation.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      I was also taught that presentation was important. Chicken legs had to be "frenched" before giving to Tita for adobo. Mostarza or banana leaf beneath fish or embutido. Pancit was a painstaking ordeal of organizing hard-boiled eggs, fish, sauce, kalamansi and crushed chicharron just so. And there are dishes prized for their visual appeal as much as for their flavor such as rellenong manok or sapin-sapin.

                      Christmastime for me is just another holiday during which I get nagged about how I'm not saucing and decorating my plates right...and why don't I become a nurse or accountant?

            2. re: JungMann

              "Eh, I make this better at home." That is EXACTLY what my pilipina Ama would say. Well, actually we wouldn't even get that far. She would not take us to eat in Filipino restaurant because "why we go there when I can make it at home myself". Now that we are all grown, and she lives with my auntie in L.A. "Historic Philippine Town" I believe it's called, she will pick up a turo-turo meal here or there. My theory is that the food is also so diverse- every province has its own type of food. My mom is Pampagena (sp?) so we ate a lot of fish, vegetables, clear broth, simple provincial stuff. But I love Manila style food pancit lug lug, pancit canton, the hearty meat dishes, that I have enjoyed in Filipino restaurants. When my mom cooks for my non-filipino friends, I think they are expecting to eat more hearty food than she is accustomed to preparing.

            3. I'm just thinking out loud, but I think that immigration patterns are important factors to consider here. I don't know enough about Thai immigration, but I do know that Filipinos first arrived in the US either as scholars or migrant laborers. But the real explosion of the Filipino population happened after the 1965 Immigration Act, with, I believe, a majority of those immigrants coming over as middle-class professionals (many in the healthcare industry) with their families in tact. This is important because with the families in tact, there was almost always a homemaker in the family unit, providing food for the family. Additionally, with their Catholic background (and I hope I'm not stereotyping here) Filipino families tend to be larger than the average family, creating a larger pool of home cooks. Considering this, it seems that the average Filipino immigrant had plenty of access to their native cuisine without ever having to enter a restaurant. One of my close relatives married a Filipina and I know that any one of 16 "aunties" would be cooking up a storm for a gathering on any given weekend. Another consideration is that because Filipinos are usually already fluent in English and share a Christian background, they tend to have a high rate of outmarriage. This would mean that any ethnic businesses from the previous generations will probably not be passed down. This is the typical assimilation story.

              To venture a guess with the Thai community, restaurants provide obvious and instant employment for recent immigrants, who, it seems, come to the US in the more classic pattern of immigration. I'm not sure if the Thai community has used revolving credit from community credit unions to provide funding for new businesses as the Japanese and Koreans had. The temples and other community institutions may provide some economic function here as well. I'm not sure if there are other economic niches that Thais have found, but with the American fancy for Thai food, it seems that the restaurant is obvious moneymaker.