Adobo on the go

Illustration by Mark Stivers

Filipino sit-down: When TV personality and chef Anthony Bourdain heralded Filipino food as the next big thing in America, he was criticized for “Columbusing,” or claiming to discover something that’s been there all along. Filipino food has been a part of Sacramento’s dining scene for decades—Starbread Bakery, anyone?—but on September 26, we gained what’s possibly our largest sit-down Filipino restaurant.

To support his proclamation, Bourdain talked up the cultural cachet of eateries such as Washington, D.C.’s Bad Saint. The upscale Filipino restaurant dresses up dishes like banana hearts and tofu-skin salad, aspects of a cuisine that were previously considered too sour for American palates. In contrast, Bistro Filipino (7909 Bruceville Road) serves classic meals inside a polished yet humble space in South Sacramento.

“We just do the traditional what-your-grandma-used-to-cook, but with a little twist,” says co-owner Marilou Abenojar. “We’re not very culinary [where] your food is 6 feet high, full of decorations.”

The menu caters to the nearby Kaiser Permanente center, where lunch breaks give workers a limited window of time to wait for food. This week, the family-owned restaurant added a $8.95 lunch special that’s ready in a matter of minutes: a rice plate with your choice of two entrees, including ampalaya (bitter melon) with beef and pork binagoongan that’s tossed in shrimp paste and tomatoes.

The kitchen offers multiple recipes for chicken, beef, pork and seafood and a few vegetarian entrees. There’s even a halo-halo dessert—a stacked parfait of shaved ice, ube ice cream, jackfruit, evaporated milk, toasted rice … the ingredients go on.

So far, the lumpia and chicken adobo are a hit, says Marilou’s brother and co-owner Lito Abenojar.

“Our chicken adobo, it’s just—” he pauses to make an Italian finger kiss. “We put a lot of love into it.”

Unlike other, soupier renditions, this chicken adobo absorbs the broth, Lito says. The recipes are concocted by third sibling and chef Arsenio Abenojar, who’s lived in Sacramento for roughly 30 years.

To start the restaurant, Lito and Marilou moved from Seattle to Sacramento. They retired from electrical utilities and government work, respectively. Inside his new business, Lito shows off the ongoing use of his engineering skills: The bar is decorated with restored barn wood.

He points to an uneven spot in the woodwork. “I’m not a carpenter, but I am mechanically inclined.”

“Ha-ha,” says the teen idling in front of the kitchen.

“This is my son, Jordan, he likes to sit around.”

His sister had dreamed about becoming a waitress before she went to work in Social Security administration. Now, Marilou says she’s eager to share family recipes stateside.

“We have so many, so many recipes that [have] not reached here, still in the Philippines, and they are good food,” she says. “They are authentic food that needs to be shared here.”