A Filipino restaurant in San Franciso, California just landed a spot in US Esquire’s list of Best New Restaurants in America for 2021. Named Abacá, the dining spot has been receiving accolades despite only being five months old.
In the feature, seasoned food writer Omar Mamoon particularly highlighted the restaurant’s pancit and lumpia—which in Abacá’s case are by no means the ordinary Filipino handaan staples we know. “The pancit is made from fresh, handmade noodles, springy to the touch, and topped with plump scallops, calamansi, and corn,” Mamoon wrote. “The sauce that brings it all together is a funky housemade XO, which starts its life as shrimp paste, scallops, and chiles.”
The fried pork lumpia, on the other hand, is “served with herbs, lettuce wraps, and an apple ketchup (also made in-house) that gives what’s usually a deep-fried snack a lightness and brightness.”
The writer particularly lauds how the California-born, Manila-bred Chef Francis Ang whips up Filipino classics “with a subtle Californianess.” Ang, who came back to the US at age 19, initially studied at the City College of San Francisco’s Culinary School. He started out as a cook at SF’s Crowne Plaza, then had his stint as a cake decorator at an old school Danish bakery called Copenhagen.
After graduation, Chef Francis focused on fine dining and worked with Michelin Star Chef Gary Danko. He became pastry chef at Fifth Floor Restaurant which was eventually reconceptualized to become what is now Dirty Habit, a restaurant and bar for which the Filipino served as Chef de Cuisine.
It was a trip to his wife Dian’s hometown of Borongan, Eastern Samar in 2013 that sparked the idea to put up a Filipino restaurant. It was after typhoon Yolanda hit the country. “We were lucky to have survived because two Islets were blocking the water surge from her town,” he recalls to ANCX. “Everywhere else was not [spared]. We did what we can locally by repacking goods, water and clothes.”
When Francis and wife headed back to the US, they organized a fundraiser at Fifth Floor by creating an all-Filipino menu. “It was so well-received that it became a ‘eureka’ moment,” Chef Francis shares. That’s when they started dreaming of putting up a Filipino restaurant.
But first, the couple started out with pop-ups that feature food showcasing their Filipino heritage. “We did the popup for seven years going back home to travel to different regions and learning what true Filipino food was,” he says. The great response of diners became the impetus to open Abacá last August 16, 2021.
The restaurant’s name was inspired by one of their travels, particularly their visit to Daraga in Bicol where they met Svea Villanueva-Reyes who runs Balay Cena Una, which serves heritage Bicolano recipes. The Reyeses, they found out, also produce and export items made from abaca. “We knew then that we wanted to decorate our future restaurant with their creations. When we reached out last year to get some decor, it clicked,” shares Francis. He also thought Abacá would be a perfect name for their restaurant. “Our team represents the fiber—strong and resilient.”
The pancit and lumpia are only two things SF’s Abacá is known for. Chef Francis highly recommends their Tamales, which they learned to make during their trips to Samar, Pampanga and Cavite. “We paired it with Perigord Black truffles and our own version of ‘Alavar’ Sauce—think of it as a rich crab fat coconut curry,” he shares.
He’s also proud of the new dish that his Sous chef Aaron Escalada has concocted. “It’s a Crispy Octopus served with Ilocano bagoong and calamansi cabbage-fennel slaw,” says Chef Francis. “It is paired with local purple sweet potato puree that we picked up from the farmer’s market and savory seared grapes with chicory greens. It’s the perfect dish with everything on it. Fresh, crispy, malinamnam, sweet, bitter and just so damn masarap!”
Another must-try in the restaurant is the Sisig Fried Rice. The Pinoy chef says he learned to make sisig from his Filipino-Chinese dad, who himself used to own a restaurant. When they did the fundraiser for Yolanda, Dian had the idea to create a Sisig Fried Rice, and it continues to be a crowd favorite up to now. “We serve it with poached egg, chicharon, onion sprouts and pickled red onions.” Now doesn’t that sound like a good reason to swing by this Pinoy pride when you visit San Francisco?
Photos from @restaurantabaca on Instagram