The Filipino Eatery Transforming DC
Every year, a handful of dishes and ingredients come to represent shifting trends in American food culture. Past years have seen the advent of quinoa, the persistence of kale, and — good riddance — the fall of the cronut. Will 2016 witness the addition of ampalaya, bitter melon, and dinuguan, pork blood stew, to the list? With the help of Filipino restaurant Bad Saint, the latest “it” restaurant in Washington, D.C., it doesn’t seem all too unlikely. After all, the ginisang ampalaya and dinuguan with puto, rice cakes, are two of the most popular dishes at the restaurant, where half of the patrons have never had a bite of Filipino food prior to their visit.
In the past several years, Filipino cuisine has skyrocketed as one of the most dynamic dining trends in the country. D.C., which is home to a sizeable population of ethnic minorities and a correspondingly diverse food scene, welcomed the Pinoy takeover with open arms. Bad Saint took the District by storm in September last year, receiving overwhelmingly rave reviews and earning the number seven spot on Washingtonian Magazine’s ranking of D.C.’s top tables in 2015. On any given day of the week, dozens of dedicated diners can be seen lined up outside the quaint, 24-seat eatery in Columbia Heights. Even the lengthy wait times, which average from three to five hours, fail to deter patrons from craving the restaurant’s authentic Filipino dishes, which include pancit bihon guisado, rice noodles, ukoy, shrimp fritters, and ginisang tulya, clam stew.
Bad Saint is the brainchild of Nick Pimentel and Genevieve Villamora (SFS ’98), both veterans of the local restaurant scene and American-raised Filipinos who fondly remember the inseparability of food and family during their childhoods. Pimentel also owns Room 11, a restaurant, bakery and coffee shop next to Bad Saint. Villamora worked in nonprofits for 10 years after graduation before joining the teams at Room 11, Mediterranean restaurant Komi and northern Thai joint Little Serow, among others. The story of Bad Saint’s humble beginnings is a serendipitous one: Both Pimentel and Villamora had begun researching the trend of Filipino food in the U.S. before the former brought it up in a conversation. From then on, the two worked tirelessly to put the team together and acquire funding for the restaurant, which is named after Saint Malo, Louisiana, the first Filipino — and possibly the first Asian — settlement in the country.
In a city where many ethnic eateries combine cuisines to attract more diners, Bad Saint’s emphasis on authenticity and wholeness is perhaps its most distinguishing feature. Step into the intimate restaurant and one could easily misidentify it as a dining room in a standard Filipino household. Opposite the door is a colorful hand-woven banig, mat, from Samar, which was brought from the Philippines to the United States in the suitcase of Villamora’s cousin. The walls are adorned with prints by the celebrated chef and artist Claude Tayag, who is a friend of Pimentel’s mother. An altar hangs highly on the wall, in memory of the restaurant staff’s family members, friends and pets. As with any Filipino home, the kitchen, led by the Philippines-born, Maryland-bred chef Tom Cunanan, takes center stage. Cunanan had served as executive sous-chef at the New American bistro Ardeo+Bardeo before joining Bad Saint. According to Cunanan, he was first convinced to delve into Filipino cooking by his mother, whom he cites as his primary influence.
The restaurant’s authenticity shines most impressively through its menu, which changes seasonally to match the freshest ingredients available to the kitchen. The current repertoire includes 13 dishes and showcases a variety of flavors. The kinilaw na pugita, which combines octopus with fingerling potatoes and queen olives, is a brilliantly bold take on the classic raw seafood dish, with an obvious influence from the Spanish ceviche. Drenched in a seafood broth, the dish contrasts the tender octopus meat and soft potatoes with crunchy onion slices. The result is what Villamora calls a layered dish of which “you can take five bites, and every time you’ll taste something different.” Other popular dishes include the piniritong pulang agwas, rouget, which is served bone-in and deep-fried with maggi vinaigrette and spicy greens, and the kalderetang kordero, lamb neck, a melt-in-your-mouth stew that comes with sunchokes and baby carrots.
Beyond authenticity, the food at Bad Saint is deeply rooted in diversity. Not only does the menu consist of an equal number of vegetable and meat dishes — Pimentel was vegetarian for seven years — the team also researched food trends and traditions across the Philippines in order to represent the gastronomic cultures of as many regions as possible. Villamora claims that this is an attempt to counter deep-seated regionalism in the Philippines, which her parents observed even in Filipino organizations in the United States. As a result, the restaurant is a melange of dozens of influences, touching also on the country’s colonial history and trade relations.
In addition to serving high-quality Filipino cuisine, the Bad Saint team is also committed to embodying an ethos of Filipino hospitality and homeliness. “We really just wanted people to feel like they were at our house for dinner,” Pimentel said. The front of house staff, of which only three are Filipino, are able to pronounce all the names of the dishes in perfect Tagalog — “better than me,” Pimentel added. The layout of the restaurant also contributes to this intimacy, as diners are squeezed together due to the limited space. Villamora recounts: “Total strangers are sitting beside each other, but by the end of the meal, they’re sipping each other’s cocktails. I’ve seen it happen so many times!”
Six months after it first opened its doors, Bad Saint is still buzzing as one of the District’s hottest joints, and the lines outside the restaurant are only getting longer. Whether Filipino food continues to be a national trend, the team has no intentions of changing its current trajectory of excelling at what it does. As Villamora said, “We don’t just want to be a trend, we want to be a good restaurant.”