It’s fair to say that Filipino food is having a big moment in Portland. Magna has reopened for dine-in service, and chef Carlo Lamagna was named one of Food & Wine's best new chefs of 2021. Seattleites Ethan and Geri Leung have opened their breakout cart Baon Kainan, one of our favorite cart openings of 2021. Judith Stokes is serving ube pandesal alongside chicken and waffles at her brunch spot Derby Kenton, where Allie G’s Pastries has also made pop-up appearances with lumpia and chicken adobo pot pie. And last Friday, one knockout dinner at Pulu by Sunrice, the new dinner pop-up at Deadshot that took up residency last week, really hammered the point home for me: Portland’s Filipino food scene is thriving and evolving. And Sunrice, which draws heavily from Filipino, Vietnamese, and Japanese influences and more, is certainly a crew to keep your eye on.
But don’t come to Pulu by Sunrice, a team consisting of TJ Cruz, Ken Tran, Roberto Almodovar, and Justin Dauz, expecting chicken adobo and pork sisig like you’d find at a traditional Filipino household. Instead, chicken thighs get the katsu treatment, and the adobo sauce, which is often thin and vinegary elsewhere, is made here with cooked-down chicken backs, chicken feet, and bones until the gravy becomes buttery and thick. And instead of crispy, fatty pork sisig, seasonal mushrooms like shiitakes, oyster mushrooms, and maitakes get roasted with butter and alliums, deglazed with tamari and calamansi juice, and topped with a fried egg and a drizzle of Kewpie mayo.
“Me being Filipino, and Ken being Vietnamese, we love our traditional foods, our home foods and all that—but at the same time, we've been eating it for years. People in our age group are going to want it to evolve,” says Cruz. “It’s an expression of our upbringing and our roots and our experience.”
The pair of friends met while on two different teams in Portland’s breakdancing scene. (I’m sensing a pattern here—some of Portland’s biggest food movers and shakers are breakdancers, including Richard Le at Matta to Ethan Leung at Baon Kainan.) Cruz, who grew up in the Philippines and moved to Portland as a teenager, has been cooking professionally for seven years, two of which he spent as a cook at Deadshot. Tran, who grew up between San Jose and Oregon, left a career in healthcare to pursue his love for food, nurtured when he made his grandma’s egg roll recipe for breakdancing festival fundraisers.
The roots of Sunrice date back to the Beaverton Farmers Market, when Cruz and Tran began selling barbecued meat skewers. In January of this year, Sunrice evolved into a brunch pop-up, where Cruz and Tran made silogs (rice with fried egg) for family and friends. Soon, their business grew to occupy a commissary kitchen, with occasional pop-ups at Deadshot and Magna and a stand at the Orenco farmers market.
Their current dinner concept, Pulu, is named after the Tagalog word “pulutan,” which Cruz and Tran describe as the Filipino equivalent of tapas—small plates meant to be shared and eaten while drinking. Those with frequent cases of the late-night munchies, rejoice: this spot is open until midnight Thursday through Saturday, so you can skip the drive-through.
The barbecue skewers, from chicken to pork to shishito, certainly fit the bill of a drinking snack, particularly the barbecue pork belly skewer, which gets a royal treatment: five days of curing in salt, then slow-roasted in the oven, sliced up and skewered, and grilled until the edges develop a hint of char. Once they’re off the grill, they’re hit with a glaze of Filipino banana ketchup and Vietnamese fish sauce. Warning: you will not want to share.
The mushroom sisig is a standout, full of texture, juiciness, umami, and tang, especially when paired with an order of the garlic-infused Sunrice. The chicken katsu, based on one of Cruz’s favorite childhood foods, is a generous portion of two chicken thighs, fried to a delicate crisp and perfect for swiping up every last drop of that creamy adobo gravy. Should you prefer your chicken katsu in the form of a sando, it’ll be accompanied by hazelnut sauce, shredded cabbage, Kewpie mayo, and a spicy pickled papaya salad.
Lovers of Filipino fast food chain Jollibee, as well as folks who love peaches, pie, or ice cream (a.k.a. everybody, right?) must order the “not peach mango pie,” named in an attempt to avoid complaints from traditionalists. This deconstructed dessert layers cooling, creamy grilled peach granita with tart mango and delicately fried cinnamon-sugar rice chips, an adventure through temperature and texture that left me wolfing the whole thing down. The “not leche flan” was the favorite of my dining companions, combining salty-tangy goat cheese with bruléed stone fruit and a top layer of crunchy, caramelized candied peanuts meant to mimic the burnt sugar layer on top of a more traditional flan.
Sunrice’s pop-up at Deadshot is expected to last through the end of the year, with the possibility of continuing into 2022. In the coming weeks, as the seasons change, look for dishes like ginataang squash—that is, braised in coconut milk—and sinigang, a hot and sour soup made with fish, tamarind, and tomato. Comfort food that blends the innovative and the traditional? Sounds like just what we need this fall.
Pulu by Sunrice, located at Deadshot, 2133 SE 11th Ave, Thurs-Sat 4 p.m.-midnight, @sunricepdx