A quartet of Filipino staff buzzes around a tight kitchen one early morning in mid-September, waiting for the day’s culinary symphony to begin. Sonia Sutter stands behind the cash register and takes phone orders. The owner of Filipinas Oriental Foods in Warren always wanted to control her destiny by being her own boss.
Sutter left her metropolitan hometown of Manila more than 20 years ago and opened the hybrid restaurant and grocery store in 2010. Along with her dad, mom, and brother, she feeds fellow Filipinos who mirror her immigration story and long for the comforting taste of the islands. Even the shop’s decor — a painting of Taal Volcano hangs on a lemon-hued wall, two tropical plants stand in the dining room — awakens memories of the archipelago.
“The ambience feels just like home,” Sutter says.
Sutter’s dad, Benjamin Carmona, is the cook. His friend, a nurse, loved his food and “told everyone” she knew about Filipinas Oriental Foods, Sutter says. This type of word-of-mouth advertising drives the business, which doesn’t have an online presence beyond a Facebook page. Customers, mostly Filipinos, travel from as far as Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and Holly to try Filipinas’ food.
Around 11 o’clock, customers begin trickling into the market, as the aromas of Filipino classics sing out from cafeteria-style chafing dishes. Customers walk to the counter and point to the traditional dish of their choice: pork and chicken adobo (Filipinas’ version boils the meats in a stew of soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, and other seasonings); creamy laing made with taro leaves; and longganisa, the short, sweet, and reddish sausages. Once they’ve made their selections, diners settle in at one of a handful of plastic-covered tables to feast.
As the kinetic banter in Tagalog permeates the room, diners eat baby avalanches of white rice. For many Filipinos, rice is life. A woman with pencil-straight black hair shovels down spoonfuls of sisig, chopped up, crunchy pork with onions and labuyo, a small chile pepper. A trio of titas, or aunties, serve retro outfits. One sports a pistachio-hued pullover, lilac pants, and a tight mullet perm; another wears cat-eye glasses; and the third flaunts a high ponytail, tennis visor, a bedazzled navy top, and hoop earrings while munching on fried pompano fish.
This quiet slice of strip-mall life showcases the humble glory of turo turo, meaning “point-point,” a casual style of dining rooted in Filipino street-food culture. This is where metro Detroit’s Filipino food scene lives: inside grocery store restaurants, independent catering operations, pop-ups, curated meal pick-ups, and even a supper club, binding together a geographically fragmented diaspora. The restaurants use a range of feel-good culinary approaches, from homestyle cooking to fusion, facilitating a desire for interconnectedness, a Filipino cultural concept known as kapwa.
Filipino cuisine is astonishingly diverse. In a country of more than 7,000 islands and nearly 200 ethnolinguistic groups, the way certain dishes are prepared varies across cities and provinces, shaped by Indigenous cooking traditions, like preserving meat and fish in vinegar, and the shadow of colonial Spanish and American empires. Even condiments, like banana ketchup, hold a history.
Around metro Detroit, there’s no Filipinotown or Little Manila, but there are smaller Filipino communities within suburbs like Sterling Heights, Madison Heights, and Southfield. The food scene exists, but hasn’t yet exploded in the way one might see in Southern California. Trying to pinpoint the reasons why elicits a range of speculation from Filipino chefs and diners: The community is scattered across southeast Michigan’s suburban sprawl. Home cooking is still king. It’s hard to find skilled Filipino cooks. The restaurant industry is unstable, and investors don’t want to take a risk — to name a few. Many of the eateries also inspire a legion of superfans who make repeat visits over the years; the power of their dollars and loyalty help sustain these businesses.
Those fortunes may shift as a younger generation of Filipino American chefs push the cuisine’s evolution. Local chefs shout out Kasama, a Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in Chicago, as a beacon of inspiration. Culty Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee, known for its fried chicken and spaghetti, will soon open in Sterling Heights, which some say is proof the food is in demand and here to stay. And there’s a collective hope among local chefs and diners that more eateries will sprout up and expand horizons of Filipino cooking.
Already in Sterling Heights, Isla is carving out a small Filipino oasis that transports diners to a culinary world that celebrates the chefs’ love of the Philippines and America even as it’s surrounded by chains and big-box stores like Target. It’s been more than a year since Isla relocated to the brick-and-mortar nestled in a sprawling parking lot — more than 20 miles from the now-shuttered Fort Street Galley downtown.
Two large paintings of national birds decorate Isla’s gray wall: the brown-feathered Philippine eagle and its raptor cousin the American bald eagle, each framed by the silhouette of the Detroit skyline, which pays homage to the food hall where the restaurant concept was born. The golden Filipino sun, a symbol of cultural identity emblazoned on the country’s flag, decorates the menu and the restaurant’s logo.
Inside, an older Filipino woman is fawning over a toddler bumbling around in a zebra-print hoodie as the cloak of nightfall arrives and Isla Detroit’s recent Saturday service is about to end. At the 23-seat casual eatery in Sterling Heights, chefs JP Garcia and Jacqueline Diño-Garcia enchant Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike by serving artistically composed desserts that showcase their classical training — like the tropical ube, or purple yam, cake presented in the form of the French dacquoise. Crumbled pinipig polvoron, made of a powdered milk, sugar and flour then folded into puffed rice, is sprinkled over pristine layers of mango jam and coconut mascarpone. An edible white viola flower adds a delicate touch. “People eat with their eyes first. If it’s not appealing or appetizing to them, they’re not going to try it,” says Garcia.
The move to Sterling Heights catalyzed a transition into a more fast-casual vibe: The Garcias offer meals that carry well to-go, which helps the two-person operation turn tables faster. So far, their feel-good but refined culinary approach is winning loyal fans. A dedicated customer base of finance professionals ate at Isla when it was still stationed within the downtown Detroit food hall. Now, they visit the Sterling Heights location, Garcia says, and can once again delight in Filipino fare outside of a work lunch.
Beyond the artistic interpretations of sweetness, some of Isla’s savory entrees reflect the cooking styles of Iloilo, a province considered a culinary hub, located in the Philippines’ Visayas region, and where Garcia’s mom and Diño-Garcia’s family is from. There’s the batchoy, a noodle dish served with beef shank and bone broth. One of Isla’s adobo dishes uses an annatto seed as the marinade’s base, which infuses the chicken with a reddish hue, versus a typical soy sauce-dominant preparation.
This is a moment of optimism for the Garcias, as they see Filipino cuisine, sometimes unfairly scrutinized by the culinary community, gaining more momentum and visibility. JP Garcia sees more people embracing multiculturalism, especially when they eat. Non-Pinoys are “more open-minded about food and other cuisines that’s out there. That’s different,” he says. “There definitely is a movement and hopefully we can represent that in Michigan.” And he welcomes the arrival of forthcoming Sterling Heights resident Jollibee, he adds. “The more representation, the better.”
On an idyllic stretch of 13 Mile Road in Royal Oak, Filipino executive chef Eddie Bautista is weaving flavors from the Phillipines into his takes on Asian fusion-style cuisine at Edo Ramen House. Surrounded by pictures of rock stars like Bob Seger and The Romantics frontman Wally Palmar, Bautista puts a twist on tradition. Ube is often eaten for dessert and can be served as a jam or flavored for cakes and ice cream. Bautista’s version stuffs ube-flavored ice cream inside a fried cinnamon cake.
These creative spins are a way to court non-Filipino clientele, in addition to offering options like classic Filipino lumpia alongside Japanese and Hawaiian fare. In his experience, Bautista says some people are reluctant to try traditional Filipino food. “I don’t know why,” he says, “but some people will try it, and some people won’t, but it’s easier to be accepted when you kind of fuse your cooking with different kinds of style[s].”
Growing up, Bautista became enamored with the way his mom would cut potatoes in four medium-sized pieces for hearty stews like kaldereta; he inherited her attention to detail. His travels across Asia and training as a sushi chef help shape his culinary philosophy. Bautista began cooking Filipino food in the 1990s, and once owned the restaurants Little Tree Sushi and Edamame Sushi. But the chef’s artistic spark doesn’t undermine a deep reverence to Filipino food history. “Filipino is the soul food of Asia,” he says.
Bautista is thankful for the quiet ways Filipinos introduce the cuisine to new audiences that make an impact, thinking of the nurses who bring trays of Filipino food to the hospitals where they work. Bautista believes Filipino food’s increasing popularity will sustain beyond a mere trend.
“I think Filipino food has a really great taste. The flavor is there. The culture is there,” he says. “When you go to a lot of Filipino restaurants, it’s loud. It’s happy. That’s what we are. We’re happy people. And we’re always hospitable. Our culture is beautiful.”
While some chefs are courting metro Detroit diners by building a presence in the suburbs, one husband and wife team is doing so one kitchen at a time throughout the region. Last weekend, local pop-up Sarap Detroit hosted a series of kamayan community dinners at Frame in Hazel Park. Kamayan means “by hand,” and diners are encouraged to eat without forks and spoons — the way Filipinos ate together before colonialism and how many still eat today.
Dorothy Hernandez — a self-taught cook, food writer, and editor (and occasional Eater Detroit contributor) — and her husband, chef Jake Williams, started their pop-up in 2014. At the time, Hernandez saw a gap in the food scene. Sarap, which means “delicious,” was the perfect way to test out the concept and be creative, while also introducing non-Filipinos to her beloved cuisine. Hernandez expanded her knowledge of Filipino food history and culture, as well as regional approaches to cooking, by reading the Memories of Philippine Kitchens, a cookbook by culinary trailblazers Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan.
The pop-up is known for its innovation, and past menu items include the longganisa hot dog and duck confit adobo. The Frame dinners opened with a kinilaw appetizer, made with fish cured in coconut vinegar. It’s the kind of dish Hernandez says is representative of how Filipinos highlight local and seasonal ingredients. The main entrees were served on banana leaves, a signature of the kamayan feast. Food memories remain influential in the Filipino community, and Hernandez doesn’t want to compete with them. Still, she’s adamant about preserving Sarap’s creativity, which is, after all, quintessentially Filipino. She also talks and writes about local Filipino food, giving diners a roadmap of where to find the best bites.
She forecasts a brighter future for the cuisine. “The younger generation is open to sharing food culture,” she says. “There’s a lot of Filipino pride.”
Over the years, she’s seen more pop-ups and restaurants purely devoted to Filipino food sprout up across the country, a shift she hadn’t anticipated. “I think that speaks to how there’s maybe more awareness of Filipino food and more demand to try it,” she says.
At a recent Sarap pop-up event co-hosted with Mexican food truck Señors at the laid-back, industrial taproom Urbanrest Brewing Company in Ferndale, Kurt Manuel scoops up bites of Sarap’s take on halo-halo, a cold dessert stacked with layers of ube halaya, red beans, jackfruit, and macapuno, or coconut strings, leche flan, and shaved ice and milk served in a plastic cup. He’s sitting on an outdoor bench, surrounded by friends.
A Sarap superfan, Manuel didn’t think Filipino food had much variety when he was a kid growing up in Hazel Park. But, as he’s gotten older, the 30-something has seen more Filipino food and an explosion of creativity that made him realize that visibility matters. “If I knew that there were cool restaurants in my neighborhood that were serving Filipino food, I wouldn’t feel so weird about it,” he says.
He fell in love with Sarap’s inventive flair. “People are trying things at Sarap,” he says. “It connected me to Filipino food that wasn’t connected to an aunt. Their versions of my childhood classics make everything look brighter and cool.” Manuel loves these invigorating flavors so much that Hernandez and Williams will be catering his #coolgaywedding to his partner Eric Wilson. “I want my white friends at the wedding to taste Filipino food,” he says. “But like, in a way that’s gonna be new to them.”
And as Sarap moves forward, helping Filipinos connect through food is a mission that remains steadfast. Hernandez hopes these dishes expand diners’ culinary imaginations while also staying true to the culture. “I don’t want to do stuff that people could get at home,” Hernandez says. “It’s always been [about] finding this balance between trying new things and surprising people.” When customers get a delectable hit of nostalgia which makes them smile, that’s when Hernandez knows she’s made a good dish.
In the heart of southwest Detroit is PizzaPlex, known for its wood-fired, certified Neapolitan pizzas — and, more recently, Filipino food. Co-owner Alessandra Carreon, who is Filipino and Italian, made the restaurant a place where food is the bridge to culture and conversations on food sustainability and justice.
The COVID-19 pandemic made Carreon and her team refocus their energy on the restaurant’s menu. They had been serving pizza for five years and they had talented cooks, whom Carreon calls family, in the kitchen. They’ve been her go-to collaborators since the beginning. Together, they realized they wanted PizzaPlex’s story to evolve.
“There was always this understanding that we want to stay true to our Neapolitan pizza certification,” Carreon says. “But equally, along the lines of intersectionality, we also knew that there was space for others, that was culturally connected to mission.” Now the menu is also a bridge to Carreon’s own heritage. She craved to share a part of herself that felt missing on the menu. “This is kind of the moment for it and how I express that.” This decision also wasn’t made in response to a demand for Filipino food, but rather, emerged from creative collaboration among the people working in the kitchen. She says it could open the door to serving other cuisines in the future.
PizzaPlex now offers small plates of Filipino pork, chicken, and tofu barbecue; leche flan; and achara, a green papaya salad. These dishes harken back to the conviviality of eating around Carreon’s family table. “There’s something nostalgic in that, but also delicious,” she says.
The restaurant also serves as the pick-up location for a monthly subscription food package service, Baon, that helps Filipinos create new food memories rooted in sustainability. The subscription service’s namesake refers to money or other provisions a person takes to school or work. Within Filipino food culture, they’re the to-go boxes often wrapped in foil and sent home with guests after a party. “Baon” (pronounced “BAH-on”) offers a unique package every month, for $55. Customers must fill out an online form, and pick-ups happen every second Thursday of the month at PizzaPlex.
Within each package are curated prepared goods that vary from month to month, like a vegan version of bagoong (a fermented paste usually made from fish or shrimp); pantry staples like banana ketchup or frozen calamansi (a small, tart citrus fruit that is a staple in Filipino cooking); and fresh produce like tomatoes grown by a local urban farmer and former Takoi front-of-house staff, Christina Ponsaran, who pays homage to how Filipinos grew vegetables in their yards back home. “The beauty of a lot of Filipino cuisine is like, it never has to look one way or another. It’s constantly adapting,” Ponsaran says, adding that Filipinos often consider how food is part of the environment. “I think specifically for the Filipinos that do exist here that’s really important, is to know that they’re Filipino enough, that they can redefine what that means to them.”
Many of these ingredients can be used to make a recipe that accompanies each Baon package. A recent package included eggplant to make tortang talong, a Filipino omelet. Baon is for everyone and is especially friendly to those who want to discover new food. These packages are an easy first step for beginners to engage.
Along with Carreon, Baon’s creators also include Bekah Galang, the retail marketing director for Avalon International Breads and Danielle Daguio, the development and engagement coordinator for Keep Growing Detroit, whose mission is to promote food sovereignty across the city.
Daguio, who grew up in an intergenerational Filipino household in New Jersey, says that moving to Detroit, away from her family, came with a shock. “Finding Filipino culture — finding other Filipinos in general — was really, really hard,” she says.
It’s this experience that also drove Filipinx community organizer shane bernardo to keep food traditions alive while helping Filipinos strengthen their connection with each other through the Detroit Filipino Supper Club, a regular, informal potluck gathering. “I found out how important food was for not just making connections but preserving our identity and culture,” they say.
bernardo’s family is part of that less-visible legacy. The family once owned a grocery store on Detroit’s west side and helped feed the surrounding communities throughout the 1980s — illustrating how Filipino Americans are woven into the city’s cultural fabric. “Our food, our culture, our influence, has actually been in Detroit for a long time,” they say of the city’s past generations of Filipinos, “but it’s been obscured by urban renewal, displacement, gentrification, and so on.”
As Filipino food ascends into the cultural zeitgeist, bernardo says a lot of times the cuisine is romanticized. “It doesn’t tell the full story of where these dishes came from, where the ingredients came from, or how they were created,” bernardo says. In some ways, the supper club may help people understand that missing part of the story.
During a recent convening, the supper club gathers at 27th Letter Books, a worker-owned, independent bookstore in southwest Detroit and a haven for those seeking out historically underrepresented authors. A Filipino food-inspired murder mystery series by writer Mia P. Manansala — whose cheeky titles include Arsenic and Adobo — stands in the shelves. Strands of rainbow-colored paper cranes dangle over some of the heads of roughly a dozen Filipinos, many of whom have brought a homemade dish to share with the group.
Before they eat, they form a circle around a congested table filled with items like shrimp kilawen and chicken pancit, a popular noodle dish. They thank each other for the joyous abundance. Local filmmakers Eden and Thaad Sabolboro bring pork humba made with softened meat cubes, which is also popular in the Sabolboros’ native Cebu. Eden, who is pregnant, gets emotional eating the kilawen, a dish that’s typically cooked and she hadn’t known before. Eating kilawen reminds her of kinilaw, a meal she craves but can’t eat because it’s typically served raw.
There’s a treasured appeal of the supper club gathering, repeat attendees say: They don’t have to explain what it means to be, feel, and act Filipino. And it’s why Eden and her family keep coming back. She immigrated to the United States eight years ago. When she arrived, Eden longed for understanding.
“The first couple years I was here it was incredibly hard, incredibly difficult to find yourself. You are neither here nor there. You don’t know what to make of it.” Sabolboro eventually found the supper club. But other new Filipino immigrants, Sabolboro says, may not be as enterprising, and the supper club can help those yearning to see a familiar face.
“It could really be a place where one could go and be like, ‘Oh, there’s somebody there that you can talk to and make you feel less lonely or make you feel less out of place,’” Sabolboro says. “If I could put myself in the shoes of being that person again, something like that would have really helped me as a new immigrant.”
The supper club attendees chat, laugh, and pile food onto their paper plates. S. Lily Mendoza, who’s also the executive director of the Center for Babaylan Studies, helps lead the festivities.
Mendoza sees the supper club not solely as a potluck, but a place for those who want to reimagine their roles in society and recover ways of life lost because of colonization and industrialized food production. “We’re bringing in all this food and so can we think more deeply and intentionally about where our food comes from?” Mendoza says. “Because that’s what our ancestors were rooted in. They were rooted in a sacred relationship to the land and the natural world. This can lead to deeper conversations about how we live today.”
After the potluck, Mendoza moderates a reading, featuring California-based Filipino American author and illustrator Kenneth Tan, which is held in the bookstore’s backyard. Tan talks about his collaborative memoir and art book Crescenciana, which chronicles his late lola’s life, their shared life together, and the paintings they made together.
Food, like stories, are medicine, Mendoza says, and they have to be told well. This afternoon, there is a deluge of stories. Tan talks about his lola’s days of planting rice in the Philippines. She was part of a generation that survived war, occupation, and dictatorships. He talks about her love of America, and his devotion to care for her until she died in 2016.
The conversation also conjures up the pain of colonial trauma. Mendoza says she was barred from speaking her family’s language, Kapampangan, in school because it wasn’t considered intellectual enough.
The autumn sun blazes overhead. Among the people there are immigrants like Sabolboro and Mendoza. Others are children of immigrants who flew over thousands of miles of ocean to seek a new beginning and resettle in a new home. No matter where they were born, this is a place where they can belong, stay close, and honor stories of survival and solidarity. “You get to share a part of you and who you are, your upbringing,” Sabolboro says. “This is a space to see ourselves and be ourselves.” Eating Filipino food together nourishes them in ways beyond the plate. Here, there is only a radiant pride, an exaltation of hospitality, a desire for togetherness. And lots of lumpia.