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qui_sanmigMost of the time when people talk to me about Filipino food, they start off with the question “Have you had balut?”  I tend to shut down pretty quickly any talk about balut, the boiled duck egg that contains an 18-day embryo which has gained worldwide notoriety by being frequently trotted out in adventure eating shows and Fear Factor, with an eyeball-popping mother of all side-eyes.   Yes, I’ve eaten balut (who hasn’t if you grew up in the Philippines where it is a pretty common street-food snack?).  And no, this dish which is unusual and disturbing to Western eaters (but hardly any more unusual or disturbing than some of the indigenous food of other cultures, Peruvian cuy anyone?) doesn’t define Filipino food, in the same way that a Minnesotan hot dish casserole doesn’t define American food.  It’s hardly surprising though that there’s a lack of understanding and even basic knowledge about Filipino cuisine – unlike its fellow Southeast Asian cuisines from Thailand and Vietnam it hasn’t really broken into the American culinary mainstream despite the fact that Filipinos make up the second largest percentage of Asian-Americans according to the 2010 US Census.   There are a lot of theories from both Filipino and non-Filipino food people on why this is (Filipino immigrants assimilate into American food and culture more rapidly than other cultures because the Philippines was a former US colony; since Filipino immigrants are pretty dispersed in the US there are no “Filipino-towns” where Filipino restaurants can thrive; Filipino food just doesn’t have the attention-grabbing spice and “funky-ness” levels of Thai food, etc., etc.) which will take blog post upon blog post to dissect.   So my ears perked up, my eyes blazed, and my nose twitched when I started seeing Twitter and Instagram photos late last year of modernized takes on Filipino dishes like dinuguan, chicken adobo, sisig, and halo-halo being served at qui in Austin, the new restaurant from Top Chef Texas winner Paul Qui.  I knew from being an avid Top Chef watcher (and yes I was rooting for Qui to win that season despite the presence of six Chicago chefs) that he is Filipino-Chinese and that he moved to the US when he was a kid, but did he really open a Filipino-inspired restaurant when his celebrity chef-hood could have led to a myriad of different options that are sexier, less obscure and more “foodie-friendly”? Coming to Austin and checking it out was the only way to find out.

Fortunately, my dear friend Jim moved to Austin this spring to run one of its arts festivals and so I came down last weekend to both see him and partake of Austin’s much-ballyhooed food scene, of which qui is the hottest, most dazzling, most buzzed-about newcomer.  It was on many year-end “bests of“ lists and was crowned by GQ food critic Alan Richman as the #1 Best New Restaurant in America.  And I can definitely say that after my meal last week, one of my most memorable so far of 2014, qui is, if not the best new restaurant in the country, certainly the most exciting and the most enthralling.  And I think a significant part of that is Chef Qui’s elevation of traditional Filipino dishes through the use of sophisticated technique, surprising ingredients, and boundaryless mojo.

qui_karekareTake the vegan kare-kare for example, my (and many Filipinos’) favorite dish of all time,  traditionally braised oxtail and vegetables with a silky-thick peanut curry served with bagoong (sautéed shrimp paste) as a condiment to give it a salty-fishy savoriness, balancing the sweetness of the peanuts and the assertiveness of the oxtail.  qui’s version is stunning: sweet potato, long beans, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, kale (crisped up and arranged on the plate like an undulating tail, maybe a whimsical nod to the missing oxtail ingredient?), sprinkled with toasted peanuts and delicately doused with a lightened-up peanut curry sauce.  Because it’s vegan (and never in a million years did I imagine that kare-kare could be made completely, unapologetically vegan), instead of bagoong, there are roundlets of barley miso which when mixed with the peanut sauce still gives the dish its unmistakable salty accents.  The dish feels (and tastes!) very contemporary and  innovative but its Filipino spirit, bearing centuries of grandmothers hand-grinding peanuts and hunching over braising pots for a dish traditionally served after Sunday mass,  is still wondrously intact.

qui_dinuguanThe dinuguan is bold, bombastic, stellar, absolutely deserving of all the accolades it has received (including being one of Food and Wine’s best dishes of 2013). The dish, which is commonly a stew of pork blood, organs, and random bits of meat, is polarizing for Filipinos – some of my Filipino friends don’t even eat it.  It’s a dish that came out of our colonial history:  the Filipino elites, usually Spanish mestizo families, ate dishes with lots of pork meat in them in line with Spanish culinary tradition; the other parts of the pig such as the blood and the entrails were left unused so these were re-purposed by their enterprising Filipino servants into dishes like dinuguan that they would eat so no part of the animal was ever wasted (what trendy snout-to-tail cooking? Filipinos have been doing this for centuries!). Chef Qui takes this lowly dish, so complicatedly representative of both the social and colonial stratification of Filipino society, and gives it an astounding sophistication yet fiercely protects its provenance. The pork blood and vinegar gravy is there, tasting bracingly authentic, still sour-tart-slightly bitter yet un-gamey, powerfully standing out but not dominating. Then he adds ingredients that those long-ago humble inventors of the dish could not have possibly imagined: confit of pork belly that mimics the unctuousness and forcefulness  of the traditional organ meats but gives it an elegance and maturity; gnocchi which cuts the blood gravy with its denseness and starchiness in the way the rice cake puto the traditional accompaniment to the dish does; arugula, mushrooms, and red onions which give the dish a seductive color and liveliness.  And they all make sense together, and yes they all taste delicious together. This dinuguan is mesmerizingly delicious, and a thoughtfully ballsy move to serve it to non-Filipinos (it seems to be a staple of the restaurant’s tasting menu).

The restaurant’s version of halo-halo, the quintessential Filipino dessert of shaved ice, fresh and preserved fruits, and condensed milk, was probably the most intricate dish I had at qui. Halo-halo is a Tagalog word that is literally translated as mix-mix, a literal description of its components.  It is a dish that lends itself to re-interpretation and adaptation because it is a mélange of “stuff”. And Chef Qui’s version is quite the brilliant and exciting mélange, evoking the Philippines’ national dessert and yet transcending it through graceful refinement. Instead of the crunchy pinipig, he uses waffle bits and sesame seeds. Instead of the popping sago, there’s strawberry tapioca. Instead of the firm preserved kundol fruit, he uses carbonated grapes.  Vanilla peppercorn ice cream and strawberry sorbet as act as surrogates for the decadence of leche flan, ice cream, and purple jam paste. He covers the whole tumbler of shaved iced and these ingredients with rum tres leches in lieu of condensed milk alone, giving it a welcome rebellious streak.  It is a dish that is delicious beyond belief- refreshing, surprising, harmoniously blending disparate ingredients, an apt metaphor for the Filipino identity which is a mishmash of Malay, Spanish, Chinese, and American influences.

qui isn’t all Filipino-inspired, the menu has a breathtaking range of dishes that combine European and Asian techniques and ingredients (his mushroom rice cooked like a risotto in a broth of mushrooms and garlic and tomato confit and brushed with a sake aioli is deliriously thrilling). But the Filipino dishes (I also had a more straightforwardly prepared amberjack kinilaw or Filipino ceviche,  delicately succulent pieces of fish embraced in a coconut milk-coconut vinegar-chili dressing, faithful to the dish’s original tart-salty-sweet flavor profile evoking languorous summer afternoons by the sea in one of the Philippines’ 7, 100 islands) are the ones that command attention.  As a Filipino, eating at qui is exhilarating: these are dishes that have specific cultural connections and memories for me, but through Paul Qui’s soulful creativity, they have attained a more universal appeal. As I saw plate after plate of dinuguan and kinilaw and kare-kare come out to the packed house of approving, seemingly satisfied non-Filipino diners, I thought to myself that with Paul Qui masterfully leading the way, Filipino food will finally come into its own in the American culinary conversation. And that conversation will not include balut ever again.

qui is at 1600 E. 6th St., Austin, Texas.


One Response to “#PinoyPride”

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