The East Bay is the Bay Area's great unsung destination for Filipino food – San Francisco Chronicle

It’s lunchtime at Toto’s Grill in Hayward, and a few parents chat in Tagalog as they char skewers of marinated pork at the communal grill for their kids at home. They know to ask the staff to pull out the good stuff — isaw, squiggly chicken intestines.
Over in Union City, crowds form outside Toppings Too for huge portions of golden fried lechon, steak covered with gravy, and turmeric-tinged java rice. In San Leandro, families eagerly await platters of sizzling sisig at Parekoy Lutong Pinoy, mixing up the crispy pork with raw egg yolk as soon as it hits the table.
These Filipino restaurants are just a taste of what’s available in the East Bay — and the options keep growing. The scene even rivals that of Daly City, which has long been propped up as the best place in the Bay Area to find Filipino food. So although people usually say Daly City is where people should get Filipino food in the region, that’s not the only answer. You might even say the East Bay is the great unsung destination for Filipino eats in the Bay Area.
Pork sisig photographed at Parekoy Lutong Pinoy in San Leandro, California Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.
Kare-Kare photographed at Parekoy Lutong Pinoy in San Leandro, California Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.
“Nobody gets enough credit,” said Gemma Ballesteros, who grew up in the East Bay and opened her Filipino-inspired bakery Marley’s Treats in Hayward in 2020. “There’s a lot out here. It’s just a matter of finding it.”
About 100,000 Filipinos live in Alameda County, primarily in the southern swath from San Leandro to Fremont, according to census data. Union City is often referred to as the East Bay’s Little Manila, with Filipinos making up 20% of the population. By contrast, Daly City’s population is about 30% Filipino.
If there’s still doubt about whether this slice of the East Bay is an important center of Filipino culture, just look to the big Filipino chains. Beloved fast-food giant Jollibee and mango cake bakery Red Ribbon both touched down in Union City before expanding to Hayward in 2019. And Gerry’s Grill, one of the biggest restaurant chains in the Philippines, has just one Bay Area location: Union City.
Alex Retodo, owner of the Lumpia Co. in Oakland, said he doesn’t understand why the East Bay isn’t hyped as a must-visit Filipino food hub like Daly City. Perhaps it’s because people just don’t think to drive from Oakland or San Francisco to Union City to eat — after all, Union City is 20 miles from downtown Oakland, whereas Daly City is just 10 miles from downtown San Francisco.
The diversity of the Filipino options in Union City is worth the drive, though, from homey turo-turo spots where customers choose slow-cooked stews out of steam tables to hip newcomers that bake purple crinkle cookies with ube, the Filipino purple yam.
“If I have a day off and I want to take someone and educate them with a food tour, I’m going to Union City. I’m going to Hayward,” Retodo said.
Upside down halo halo with ube crack cheesecake at Cafe 86 on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Union City , Calif.
Chris makes an order at Cafe 86 on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Union City , Calif. **Chris preferred to not use his last name or initial.
Retodo grew up with Hayward and has seen how Filipino food culture has grown since the ’80s. He remembers just a handful of Filipino spots in those early days; instead, families shared trays of lumpia and barbecue sticks at church festivals.
Cafe 86
This small cafe chain from Southern California serves a variety of teas, coffee and sweets starring Filipino ingredients, with an emphasis on ube. Try the ube truffles and upside-down halo halo, an ube-forward twist on the highly textured shaved ice dessert. 34391 Alvarado-Niles Road, Union City.
Isla Restaurant
Isla is a top choice for trying Kapampangan-style food, a Spanish-influenced subset of Filipino cuisine via the Kapampangan people. There are a la carte options, like the skinless, crispy version of the sweet sausage known as longanisa, as well as huge family-style combo platters served on banana leaves. 5720 Mowry School Road, Newark.
Gerry’s Grill
One of the biggest chains from the Philippines, Gerry’s Grill serves a wide variety of traditional dishes. Popular options include crispy pata and beef kare-kare, a creamy peanut stew. This is also one of the few East Bay Filipino restaurants with outdoor seating. 31005 Courthouse Drive, Union City.
No need to agonize over a menu here – you’re ordering fried chicken. Maharlika has earned a decades-long reputation as the East Bay’s best Filipino fried chicken, making a favorite catering option for parties. 3671 Thorton Ave., Fremont. 510-794-5128
Marley’s Treats
A homegrown modern Filipino bakery, Marley’s gets creative with ube, pandan and leche flan. While the flan-topped ube cheesecake tarts are the best-seller, don’t miss the ube pan de sal stuffed with flan, which manages to be less sweet but still rich. 838 B St., Hayward.
Parekoy Lutong Pinoy
The pork sisig, a sizzling, savory-sour platter of crispy pork, is Parekoy’s biggest hit for good reason. Count on anything else crispy and porcine as a safe bet. 14807 E. 14th St., San Leandro.
The all-you-can-eat buffet loaded with stews from chicken adobo to pork blood-heavy dinuguan is a popular choice. But you can also order something freshly fried off the menu, such as lumpia or crispy pata. Either way, there’s plenty of seating in the cozy dining room. 13876 Doolittle Dr., San Leandro. 510-346-0000
The Original Luisa and Son Bakeshop
A typical Filipino bakery, Luisa and Son sells bags of fluffy pan de sal, cheese-topped sponge cakes and whole egg pies. Try the ube macapuno ensaimada, a spiral-shape pastry with swirls of purple yam and chunks of young coconut. 4128 Dyer St., Union City.
Toppings Too
Huge portions of classic Filipino meats, including crispy fried pork belly known as lechon and the sweet cured pork known as tocino, draw a loyal following to this tiny spot. There are only a few seats, so expect to order takeout and walk across the street to the park. 3910 Smith St., Union City. 510-429-1058
Toto’s Grill
At this Filipino street food spot, you grab skewers, pay and cook them yourself at a giant communal grill. Intestines are popular, as are nostalgic items like fish cakes, but the tastiest is the pork marinated in soy sauce, garlic and brown sugar. 21933 Foothill Blvd., Hayward.
“They rolled it all by hand at mom’s house for a whole week to sell thousands of lumpia in a three-day weekend,” he said. “That happened in almost every church because food was our language for building friendships with other people.”
That unofficial food economy evolved into catering operations, which turned into restaurants. Small markets selling shrimp paste and dried mangoes eventually gave way to big Filipino grocery stores in Union City like Seafood City, which added a Hayward location in 2019.
The East Bay’s best Filipino restaurants specialize in classics done right, such as the creamy peanut stew known as kare-kare and breakfast plates brimming with tocino, a sweet cured pork. But that may explain another reason why they don’t have strong name recognition: It can be hard to know where to go. Many of these spots have been around for decades, and their owners tend to be older Filipino immigrants who don’t bother with websites or social media, said bakery owner Ballesteros.
Crispy binagoongan, pork cooked with shrimp paste, is served in a smoky eggplant boat at Parekoy Lutong Pinoy in San Leandro. Raw tomatoes and mango add acid and sweetness.
That might be why Helen Minor, co-owner of Parekoy Lutong Pinoy, said she hasn’t noticed much change in terms of Filipino food in San Leandro since she moved there 21 years ago. Old-school spots close because the owners retire, and then a new family picks it up and reopens under a new name.
There are exceptions to the perceived lack of change; namely, her own restaurant, which opened in 2016. Parekoy immediately earned a rave review from then-critic Luke Tsai in the East Bay Express for the restaurant’s phenomenal pork sisig, which gets its sour notes from the Filipino citrus calamansi. Minor said business took off from there, and she sees diners from all over the Bay Area thanks to word of mouth.
While Parekoy has achieved destination status, there are other Filipino restaurants worth checking out nearby, too. A couple of miles away, Tapsilog Express churns out quick Filipino breakfast plates of meat, rice and a runny egg all day. A couple of miles from there, Filipino-slash-pizza restaurant Fresh Pizza tops cheesy pies with sisig. (It works.) And a couple miles from there, Pistahan serves not only a popular all-you-can-eat buffet but expertly fries items to order, like crackling, fatty pork knuckle known as crispy pata.
Classic spots tend to serve traditional halo-halo for dessert, but the East Bay also has options for modern Filipino sweets like warm ube pan de sal, a Filipino roll stuffed with creamy leche flan at Marley’s Treats. Earlier this year, Southern California’s Cafe 86 also entered the Union City scene with ube-flavored cheesecakes and drinks. Owner Ginger Lim-Dimapasok said the lines haven’t stopped since she opened the doors.
An interior view of Parekoy Lutong Pinoy, one of the best Filipino restaurants in the East Bay.
When Lim-Dimapasok began scouting spaces for Cafe 86’s first Bay Area location, she went to Daly City. It’s where everyone told her to look — except her sister, who lives in Union City. Lim-Dimapasok recalled driving through Daly City and South San Francisco, then crossing the bridge into the East Bay and realizing she had never really considered the area before.
“Once we did go there, it felt right,” she said. “It felt homey, like the Philippines.”
Cafe 86 joins a flourishing Filipino baked goods scene in this part of the East Bay. Vallejo-born Starbread’s steaming hot señorita bread is available in Newark. Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop serves turon, crispy fried banana spring rolls, and bibingka, the baked mochi-like rice cake, in Union City and Hayward. Manila’s Original Luisa and Son Bakeshop is a treasure trove of sweet breads flavored with ube, coconut and pandan in Union City.
In the future, Retodo predicts Oakland will become the center for modern, next-generation Filipino food, building on the success of places like FOB Kitchen and his Lumpia Co. As for cities like San Leandro, Hayward and Union City, he sees more growth for both classic and innovative restaurants than in already-crowded Daly City.
“When you have more potential market, more businesses will keep moving in,” he said. “I think the East Bay is going to have the most (Filipino) shops in America. But to me, as far as the essential everyday needs, they’re already all there.”
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @janellebitker
Janelle Bitker spearheads The San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine department. She joined the newspaper in 2019 as a food enterprise reporter, covering restaurants as well as Bay Area culture through a food lens. Previously, she served as a reporter for Eater SF, managing editor at the East Bay Express, and arts & culture editor at the Sacramento News & Review. Her writing has been recognized by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and Association of Alternative Newsmedia.


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