Two establishments in the United States recently opened their doors: Tradisyon in New York City in March, and Barkada in Washington, DC in July. There’s nothing that really connects them except that both their names have a Filipino ring to them. The former was started by a Filipino-American, while the latter was set up by four non-Filipino friends who liked what “barkada” signified to them. The former got a great review in Eater New York, while the latter received so much flak that the owners have taken down the name and are in search of another.
Due to the minefield that is cultural appropriation, Barkada got a lot of backlash because its wine bar concept didn’t have any tangible connection to the Philippines. Imagine entering the place, seeing customers sipping their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs as they nibble on cheese and cold cuts. If you’re Filipino, you’ll likely feel an odd “disconnect” with how Filipinos usually experience the word “barkada.”
That disconnect is nowhere apparent in Tradisyon which opened this March in the historically gritty Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, just a few days before New York City went on lockdown due to COVID-19. It was a gutsy move for the Filipino-American owner Joey Chanco and chefs Anton Dayrit and Bianca Vicente, as they had to deal with all the attendant public health restrictions. But perhaps it was a move that has paid off, as they launched with a business model already retrofitted for what looks to be a prolonged pandemic.
From its name’s obvious reference to the Spanish tradicion, to its “Filipino comfort food” menu, Tradisyon is a concept that is all about connecting food, culture, and identity from the get go. It has no pretensions of radically reimagining Filipino food. Instead, it offers a great example of Filipino-Americans taking off from the flavors they grew up with (hence tradisyon) but without being constrained by them. The menu is all about comforting rice bowls (using white, brown, or garlic rice, or quinoa) topped with one’s choice of Sisig, Kare-kare, Adobo, Chicken Inasal, among other well-known Pinoy standards. The joint is fast casual, with a menu that works well for takeout and delivery (a necessity in these COVID times), and with a small sidewalk area for those who opt to dine al fresco.
In a sign of the times, Tradisyon offers healthier options to balance out the heavier dishes, with quinoa as an option instead of rice, and with vegan-friendly Pinakbet, Laing, and Munggo on the menu. And since it’s still summer in New York, dessert is frozen Calamansi Meringue Popsicle.
Restaurant critic Robert Siestema recently gave it a positive review in Eater New York, especially raving about the Pork Adobo which he calls “a pork lover’s fantasy.” However, he mistakenly writes that adobo originated in Mexico. However, Philippine food historians, most notably Doreen G. Fernandez in Tikim, note that the natives were already cooking in vinegar before the Spanish even set foot on our shores.
While there are always such misrepresentations to quibble about, it’s still heartening to see yet another example of Filipino fare taking root in the American mainstream. According to Seistama, Hell’s Kitchen used to have lots of Filipino-run establishments, including turo-turo eateries catering to a predominantly Filipino clientele. While most of these places have since closed down, it seems fitting that Tradisyon opened in the same area, as proof of the evolving place of Filipino food in America’s culinary scene.
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Filipino cuisine in the United States is in the process of moving closer to mainstream status, but without losing its strong connection to its roots. It’s a world away in approach from that unfortunately named Barkada wine-bar in DC—and that makes all the difference.