Filipino food has not by and large been very visible in the Twin Cities metro until recently. This is not a surprise when you consider that as per a January 2016 report from the Minnesota State Demographic Center, the numbers of Filipinos in Minnesota—whether foreign-born or not—is relatively low: 14,100 people at the time the report was published. Compare to 184,100 for Mexican, 66,800 for Hmong, 46,300 for Somali, 44,800 for Indian (from India), 29,800 for Vietnamese and 29,400 for Chinese. Of course, population numbers alone don’t account for this lack of visibility. The number of Ethiopians is only a few thousand higher than the number of Filipinos and there are lots and lots of Ethiopian restaurants in the Twin Cities, many of them popular with more than just an in-group clientele. The secondary issue here is probably that Filipino food does not have a very high profile in the US more broadly and so there has perhaps not been that “call” for it from out-culture groups. That is, so far.
Of late, there seems to be some progress on this front. Pinoy Fusion—now operating out of the Phil Oriental Imports store—has been joined by Manila Sizzling Wok and Grill. Both are located—where else?—on University Avenue in St. Paul (as ever, the Twin Cities true “Eat Street”). Minneapolis has Apoy. And most recently there is Kalsada, which opened in May in the space of the erstwhile Augustine’s in the Merriam Park neighbourhood of St. Paul (in that Selby-Snelling corridor).
Kalsada quite consciously does not position itself in the same vein as restaurants like Manila Sizzling Wok and Grill and Pinoy Fusion. As the chef-owner Leah Raymundo told the Star-Tribune in February (a few months before the restaurant opened), they don’t want to cut into what the existing “authentic and traditional Filipino restaurants in St. Paul” already do. Theirs then is “another take on traditional Filipino cuisine”. Adjectives like “modern”, “progressive” and the awful “elevated” are often thrown around in describing restaurants doing the kind of thing Kalsada is doing, which—based on our dinner there last week—seems to be serving somewhat toned-down versions of some classic Filipino dishes. I do not in any way mean this as some sort of authenticity critique—for all I know, there are restaurants in the Philippines that serve similar takes on Filipino food. I am just confirming what Chef Raymundo notes: this is not full-bore traditional Filipino cooking of the kind that doesn’t seem to know what the word excess means.
What it does add up to is very tasty food with recognizably Filipino flavours that is positioned perfectly for the upscale, largely white market the restaurant is aimed at. It joins restaurants like Khaluna, Lat 14, Hai Hai, Ngon Bistro and Young Joni in that general space of upscale’ish restaurants serving Asian cuisine of one kind or the other to largely out-culture diners—though on the basis of our meal I’d say most of those other places I named offer more full-throated versions of the “home” cuisines than Kalsada currently does. And they seem to be doing very well with that market. Less than two months since opening, they were hopping on a Wednesday evening, with the large dining room almost full and all the outdoor seating—on patio and sidewalk—fully occupied. (During the day, by the way, they serve a very different menu which features some Filipino dishes mixed in with popular items from Cafe Astoria which they also own; the Kalsada dinner menu kicks in at 4 pm.)
We did not make it to Augustine’s before they closed and so I cannot tell you how much of the interior has changed. My understanding is that one tropical-looking wall featuring palm wallpaper is actually a holdover. Well, whatever the degree of remodeling may be it’s an attractive space indoors. Outdoors, a table on the new’ish deck is what you want. We were at one of two tables next to that deck on the sloped sidewalk and my chair was at a bit of an awkward angle. There’s plenty of street parking in the area in case you can’t get a spot in their lot.
Okay, what did we eat? We were four adults and splitting everything and we got three starters and four mains.
The starters first:
- Sizzling Chicken Sisig: Sisig is classically made with pork (particularly from the head) and chicken livers but here it’s just diced chicken. It was quite tasty, however.
- Kinilaw: As was this dish, a ceviche like preparation of small chunks of raw ahi marinated with coconut, citrus, dragonfruit, mango etc. Coming off two weeks of eating a metric tonne of poke every day in Hawaii, this really hit the spot for me. And I really liked the rice crackers that also resembled dragonfruit flesh.
- Lumpia Shanghai: The classic Filipino spring rolls. The frying was a bit variable but the best ones were very good indeed.
- Mussels Sinigang: I’m a sucker for mussels in any form and I am sorry to say that this disappointed: the mussels were strong and didn’t seem like they were super fresh and the sauce barely registered.
- Lamb Shank Kaldereta: This braised lamb shank in a tomato sauce with olives and vegetables was very tasty and the lamb was perfectly cooked.
- Crispy Tofu & Eggplant: This seems to be the lone concession to vegetarians among the mains. The skewered tofu and eggplant were very good but the sauce again didn’t do much for me.
- Happy Place Chicken Adobo: This was a very restrained version of what is said to be the national dish of the Philippines. There was no salty, vinegary blast here at all. Indeed, there wasn’t much sauce at all—not enough for the rice. But that aside, the chicken was cooked perfectly and the flavour was good on its own terms.
Despite being quite full we got some dessert as well:
- Sans Rival: I am familiar with the Goan version of this cake which obviously has Portuguese origins. This was quite different with more crunch in the layers. I think the others liked this more than I did. It was supposed to come with pandan and mango ice cream but they were out and so we were given ube ice cream.
- Ube Panna Cotta: I quite liked this though. Ube pudding with palm fruit and various incarnations of coconut with coconut ice cream on top.
- Leche Flan: The flan, however, was rather dense (I have no idea if that’s how flan is typically prepared in the Philippines). I preferred the mango ice cream it came with.
Ah yes, drinks. One of our friends got the Mango Margarita, which she liked a lot. The other got the non-alcoholic Island Cooler which he also liked. The missus got a fruity cocktail named Coconut Nut is a Giant Nut. She liked it a lot; I got a few sips and thought it was okay. Alas, my own cocktail, the Calamansi Mojito was not very good. It was rather watery—I suspect it had sat a while before being brought out—and neither the calamansi nor the (Filipino) rum really registered.
Service was very pleasant but a bit all over the place. I’ve seen allusions to difficulties when they opened—the kinks don’t seem to have been fully worked out yet. Our cocktails didn’t appear until we were halfway through our starters; the mains arrived before we’d finished with the starters and we had to struggle to find space on the table for everything. Our server scooped the mango ice cream with the scoop she’d used for the ube ice cream (though it must be said we liked both the look and taste of the resultant ube swirls). And I have just realized while writing this up that she failed to charge us for the desserts! (I am heading out of the country for a week today but hope to be able to reach the restaurant before I go to pay for the desserts over the phone.) So when I say that the total came to $54/head for the meal, keep in mind that it doesn’t include dessert. Adding that cost plus incremental tax and tip in we’d end up closer to $62/head. Not the most expensive meal out in this market but certainly a price threshold at which you’d hope they’d work the service kinks out sooner. I do realize though the service challenges that all restaurants are currently facing.
On the whole, I would recommend Kalsada as long as you are not expecting it to be doing a kind of Filipino cooking that it is not. For that more traditional style you should go to the decidedly less fancy Pinoy Fusion or Manila Sizzling Wok (a place we need to check out too).
Alright, next Tuesday I will finally post my writeup of my second dinner at Khaluna, which was almost three months ago at this point. After that I will be almost current with my Twin Cities meal reports. Before that I will have another Los Angeles report and another Hawaii report on the weekend.