Well, hello there. It's been a hot minute.
If you've been following my Instagram, I'm sure you've seen that I'm still eating and drinking way too much but I haven't necessarily been writing in this space for a few reasons. One, I'm a little conflicted about writing reviews since I'm not sure what basis I have to write such things (except for eating way too much) or why anyone would want to read them. Two, I really just enjoy presenting food just as visuals for anyone to interpret with the occasional text. Regardless, I'm back because something just happened in Baltimore that I never thought I'd ever see in my lifetime.
I'm sure you know I live in the States and I'm pretty sure if you've ever met me, you know I'm a proud Canadian. The third part of my origin that is just as important was that I was born in the Philippines. I grew up mostly in Canada and the United States and with very few other Filipinos so I wouldn't say I'm the best cultural expert on my heritage but it is still my proud heritage and the one that identify with the most. However, the one part of Filipino culture that I've probably indulged in the most is the food. I mean, it would be a disservice to my Mother, my Titas, and my Lolas if I didn't eat as much as their food as possible when growing up.
And therein lies the rub.
Growing up, Filipino food has always been best served by your family. There were a smattering of small take outs and bodegas that served Filipino food throughout my lifestyle but none were too memorable and none of them certainly were better than my family's food. Yes, there is obvious bias but that's what Filipino food is all about. It is, much like other cultural cuisine I would suspect, one of those memories and cynosures of life that is very much intertwined with your heritage and upbringing. So, to me, eating Filipino cuisine outside of our family gatherings has always been a little bit of a disappointment. It's not that the food wasn't good, it was just that it was never as good (which, admittedly was a pretty tall task).
However, it seems like Filipino food is finally taking hold as a restaurant concept. I know, I know, this has been predicted for years and years now. I haven't written in this space about Bad Saint, but this quaint little 24 seat restaurant in Columbia Heights has opened people's eyes the the possibility of Filipino cuisine and how varied and intricate it can be. It was even named the #2 best new restaurant of 2016 by Bon Appetit. Vogue just called it the next great American cuisine. Heck, there's even a documentary (see below). Filipino chefs and restaurants are everywhere now. DC is getting a new one in Kaliwa, Filipino Kitchen in Chicago is getting rave reviews, it's hard to get a seat at Perla in Philly, and we can't forget Maharlika and Talde in NYC. And that's just to name a few! There's even a traveling chef, Yana Gilbuena, who's made it her mission to travel the country under the name, Salo Series, and spread the gospel about Filipino cuisine.
Despite all these developments, I didn't think the Filipino food movement would ever reach Baltimore for a variety of reasons from it's proximity to DC to Baltimore's reputation for being slow to accept new cuisines (this is changing though!). I mean, Filipino food may have not yet arrived at the shores of Baltimore but, you can certainly see it on the horizon. There was a Kamayan by Chef Gilbuena at R. House and last week, Calasag Pop Up hosted a Kamayan right in the heart of Baltimore. Like I said, I don't write much anymore but this had to be written about.
Calasag Pop Up is a collective of friends, artists, and cooks headed by Chef Dylan Ubaldo (@toyomansi_ on Instragram). The name comes from a small village in the province of Bulacan where Dylan's family hails from. It's about three hours north of Manila and about two hours north of Quezon City where I was born. Calasag hosted the pop up at the Compound which, as far as I can tell, is an artist collective of sorts with shared common areas, an outdoor amphitheater, and a whole bunch of cool nooks to hang out in.
A Kamayan, by definition, is a feast that you eat with your hands. It's usually served on a communal table covered with banana leaves. In Casalag's pretty handout which included the menu, a history of the Philippines, their bio and an explanation of what a Kamayan is, they say, "A Kamayan gathering is [a] celebration of indigenous heritage in the Pilipinas. It is a reminder that during Spanish an U.S. colonization, eating with your hands was considered savagery and Pilipinos were forced to adapt to eating wiht utensils." While the importance of this is true, most filipinos these days just think of it as the best kind of backyard, communal feast. The line up for this Kamayan included Coconut Ube Rice (white rice steamed with coconut milk and ube extract), Bagoong Greenery (baby bok choy & Chinese broccoli sauteed in shrimp paste with cracker nuts & crispy garlic), Blue Crab Lumpia (Filipino egg rolls with Maryland lump crab, ginger, cabbage and cilantro), Chicken Adobo (chicken legs & thighs braised in soy sauce and coconut vinegar seasoned with lemongrass, whole peppercorn & bay leaves), Pinoy BBQ Skewers (Grilled pork belly & shoulder marinated in banana catsup, calamansi, & soy sauce with bird's eye chilies).
Like any good hosts, there were also three drinks served throughout the meal along with coconut juice on the table. There was a jackfruit shrub, rum & palm sugar cocktail; pandan, gin & tonic; and calamansi, lime, whiskey, & spiced bean syrup. I'm not sure I even tried all the drinks since I was too busy enjoying the experience. From what I remember, they were pretty unique combinations. For dessert, they rolled out Halo Halo, a shaved ice & evaporated milk dessert. This version also included some ube cream and flan along with some pandan jelly.
The food was laid down carefully and intricately. The rice went down first, followed by careful placement of the other dishes. They also laid down colorful papaya & individual pieces of Calamondin (little tart citrus fruit kind of like a cross between a tangerine & a kumquat). The food & flavors were spot to this balikbayan. I, especially enjoyed the ube rice and adobo. The rice was uniquely creamy and provided a good base for all the food you were shoveling in your mouth. The lumpia was larger than I was used to but using crab only in their filling was a great change up. The BBQ skewers evoked some great childhood memories especially since we could see them cooking it on an open makeshift barbecue drum. The greenery was a welcome addition of vegetables but I couldn't find the bagoong (shrimp paste) flavor in the dish and wished that it came through more since it may be one of my favorite things ever.
Overall, I'm not sure I am ready to cede Casalag's food & flavors over my mother's but it was an honest effort and Chef Ubaldo definitely but his take on some traditional dishes. Surprisingly, the food was almost the least important part of the whole evening. What Casalag did best was create an experience that showed Baltimore what Kamayan means to Filipinos. It was the idea of putting the gathering before the food. It isn't just about putting a whole bunch of delicious food all at once on a table and people eating. It was about carefully curating that food so people would be able to eat, talk and drink while eating it and they can do it at their leisure. I went with five other friends but we met countless new ones during the evening.
I have to admit that I was a little hesitant when they released the location to us. It wasn't in a generally traveled neighborhood (well at least for me) in Baltimore and walking down an alley way isn't the best first impression. But, as you went through the chain link gate, the atmosphere was spot on. The space had large backyard amphitheater with a stage and everything that had become a makeshift barbecue pit. The smell coming from the kitchen and the barbecue were so inviting and made you exponentially hungry every time you took a sniff. The lumpia was being fried right beside the communal tables and the cook so patiently talked to you even as she was frying dozens of rolls. There was an assortment of backyard games, even some filipino board games that no one really knew how to play (yeah, slightly embarrassing). There was an assortment of people who lived in the Compound or were busy making the food that welcomed you with a quick smile and conversation.
The meal took almost four hours but barely felt like it was 30 minutes. At the end of the night, Chef Dylan turned into singer Dylan and the amphitheater became a karaoke sound stage. I was only able to stay for a rousing rendition of Enrique Iglesias' (half pinoy) "Hero", an inspiring cover of the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way" and booming "Roxanne" from the Police. Each song brought down the house and created a sea of smiles. If my whole evening consisted of those three karaoke performances, it would've been a great night but it wasn't even the best part.
I'm pretty sure I'm not doing a good job of explaining the meal but my point is that Casalag never lost sight of the meaning of Kamayan. They essentially welcomed us into their home and brought a small community together. The food was a good representation of Filipino food but the vibe, the atmosphere, the experience of the feast was so much more important. What crystallized in my mind on that night was that Filipino food and Kamayan isn't just cuisine. The reason that Filipinos are surging with pride with the advent of our food across the country (as I'm sure how cultures have felt when their food became mainstream) is that it also introduces Filipino culture into the consciousness and that there are a community of Filipino chefs and their friends who are mindful of that and are endeavoring to bring the whole experience to your table.