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Diners at Jeepney restaurant in New York City in the documentary Ulam: Main Dish. Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment

Filipino Food Is on the Rise Nationally. Why Not in Denver?

While this Southeast Asian cuisine is all the rage in other American foodie cities, most Coloradans are still unfamiliar with lumpia and adobo.

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Filipino dishes such as sizzling pork “sisig” (a pork dish often topped with an egg) and “pancit canton” (stir-fried rice noodles) are finally gaining recognition in cities such as New York City and Los Angeles. Here in Denver, however, the Filipino food scene is actually shrinking.

There are only two brick-and-mortar Filipino restaurants in the Denver-metro area—Sunburst Grill and ChowSun (which also serves Thai dishes), both in Aurora—as well as the Orange Crunch food truck which cooks Filipino fusion fare. Sadly, what was perhaps Denver’s only traditional Filipino food truck, A Taste of the Philippines, is no longer roaming the streets. Owner Kathy Poland recently sold her rolling kitchen and relocated to Chicago, taking her mother’s traditional recipes with her. She now runs a catering business and sells “lumpia” (fried egg rolls) at Chicago’s Daley Plaza City Market.

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But there’s another way for Denverites to experience the deliciousness of Filipino food: via the film Ulam: Main Dish. The first-of-its-kind documentary on the Filipino food movement is a selection in this year’s Denver Film Festival.

The documentary, which showed on November 6, highlights Filipino chefs such as Alvin Cailan of Amboy and Eggslut in Los Angeles (Eggslut also has a Las Vegas location) and Nicole Ponesca of Maharlika and Miguel Trinidad of Jeepney, both working in New York City. For director Alexandra Cuerdo, the idea of Filipino-food-as-a national-trend is inherently strange, since, to her, these are  dishes she grew up eating. “If you look at the Filipino food profile, it’s very simple. It’s braised meats, the flavors are savory, tangy, sweet, and sour with pungent notes and fresh ingredients,” Cuerdo says. “It’s also really great drinking food. It will cure any hangover.”

But while making the film, she was surprised to discover how many diners were experiencing their first bite of “adobo” (a tangy, vinegar-based dish often made with chicken). The fact that so many people are new to the archipelago’s cuisine is particularly puzzling given the fact that Filipinos make up the second-largest Asian population in America. Even in Denver, where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian population is just over 4 percent, there are scores of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese eateries. This lack of Filipino representation in restaurants is a theme Cuerdo explores in her film. Poland posits that many non-Filipino diners may gloss over the cuisine altogether simply due to its unfamiliarity.

Cuerdo developed another theory for the lack of Filipino eateries in the process of making her film. “The food is excellent—it has been excellent,” Cuerdo says. But now, second- and third-generation Filipinos, such as the ones helming the restaurants menioned above, are more actively connecting to their roots and are more collaborative in their efforts to promote the foods they grew up eating.

Hopefully, that will eventually lead to the presence of more Filipino food here in Denver, too.

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“If a Filipino [restaurant] opens up somewhere centralized and they make it cool and hip, but stay true to the flavors, it can really work,” Poland says. “Denver is ready for it.”


Try It: If Filipino food is new to you, Cuerdo suggests ordering standards, such as vinegar-laced adobo or pancit noodles. Chowsun (800 S. Buckley Road, Aurora, 720-410-2135) has adobo made with chicken or pork belly for $12. Sunburst Grill (2295 S. Chambers Road, Aurora, 303-752-6389) serves chicken adobo for $9. The Orange Crush food truck (720-381-4993) also serves chicken adobo over rice.

The late Anthony Bourdain famously loved sisig, a dish of minced pork served piping hot in a skillet with a fried egg on top. You can try it for yourself at Chowsun for $12.85 and Sunburst Grill for $9.25.

While there are no more screenings of Ulam: Main Dish scheduled in Denver, the film will be available for purchase via Amazon Video, Fandangonow, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Movies & TV, PlayStation, Redbox on Demand and Vudu in mid-December. 

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