The cripsy lechon kawali is one of the fan favorites at Uncle Tito. (Alan Chazaro)
n 1993, San Francisco rapper JT the Bigga Figga famously said, “Game recognize game in the Bay, mayne.” And though JT wasn’t talking about Filipino food, the lyricist unknowingly helped to instill the hustle behind Uncle Tito, the newest Filipino-American restaurant to open in SoMa’s burgeoning Filipino cultural district.
For owners Joseph Alcasabas, Paolo Dayao and Vincent Dayao, listening to underground rappers like JT and his frequent collaborators, Mob Figaz, provided a necessary blueprint for taking entrepreneurial risks and representing their communities. The two brothers and their childhood friend were raised by immigrant parents in Concord and Pittsburg, and Alcasabas spent his adolescent years in the Philippines. The three grew up thinking of ways to “embrace heritage while pushing the needle forward,” as Alcasabas puts it.
Eventually, these lifetime homies recognized they had plenty of Pinoy game to share.
Whether it’s the restaurant’s homemade rendition of Mang Tomas all-purpose sauce (which is deliciously reminiscent of In-N-Out dressing), its bottles of tangy Mango Chili-Mansi juice, or its Pulutan Party baon box stuffed with laing wontons, lechon kawali, garlic adobo butter wings and salt and vinegar shrimp chips, Uncle Tito is going all out with their love for mixing traditional ingredients in untraditional ways to serve a diverse and modern palette of Bay Area folks.
“We really just took the Filipino-American concept and ran with it,” Alcasabas says. “It was seamless and easy because we were being authentic.”
With social distancing protocols on the verge of easing up, the restaurant will finally open its doors for its first full dine-in experience on June 15.
The trio—consisting of a graphic designer (Alcasabas), a bartender (Paolo), and a chef (Vincent)—created Uncle Tito to be a forward-thinking venue for food and culture that reflects their niche interests. Alcasabas’s art and in-house designs give the restaurant a sophisticated b-boy vibe, while the drinks and culinary concoctions are similar to what you might expect to find at a high-end restaurant, but grounded within the community.
Though the restaurant is undoubtedly the group’s magnum opus, it isn’t their first attempt in the local food industry. In 2016, Alcasabas and Paolo Dayao started out as a mobile catering service known as STRAIGHT UP, after working as bartenders throughout the Peninsula. Their original idea centered on serving classic alcoholic drinks in rotating spaces, but, as the two friends explain, the business lacked an essential ingredient: a culinary spin on their heritage. It wasn’t until they joined forces with Paolo’s younger brother, Vince, who was the sous chef at Namu Gaji in San Francisco’s Mission District at the time, that the business pivoted towards a more intentional curation of Filipino flavors.
Eating at Uncle Tito reminds me of what it was like to hang out at your best friend’s house as a kid—after playing a few hours of Nintendo 64 and listening to E-40 on 106 KMEL—before you got to grub at a table full of cool relatives you wanted to hang around because they would pass down knowledge with each inviting bite.
You might split an order of Kalye street fries—a massive heap of house-cut potatoes piled with Tito’s sauce, caramelized onions, pickled jalapenos, pork sisig and Cheez Whiz. Imagine eating an island-style pork dish, but tossed with the thickly cut wedges you might get at an American baseball game, then topped off with a generous dose of creamy and cheesy goodness stolen from your favorite uncle’s kitchen cabinet.
Or, you could smash on a baon box, which Alcasabas tells me is a nod to the traditional style of to-go food that Filipino families often give away after large gatherings. Uncle Tito has down-sized the familiar concept into a casual sampler platter that can be shared with a group of friends or on a date night.
For dessert, you can sweeten up with a dish of Milo banana creme and graham cracker-filled lumpia, or—my personal favorite—the cinnamon-sugar pandesal ube buns, which are ordered specially from Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop, a Filipino chain that the three have frequented since they were kids. The treat is filled with white chocolate ube ganache whose deep, glazed lavender color comes from mashing a purple yam. It reminds me of a Cinnabon from the mall, but stickier and tastier—and handmade by a young, gamed-up Filipino chef with soul.
Uncle Tito’s food is reminiscent of something that came straight from the bold, imaginative mind of a Filipino-American kid who got to pick and choose their favorite flavors to combine once their parents weren’t looking. But there is an unmistakable hint of tradition as well. “It’s comfort food. We’re playing with nostalgia,” Alcasabas says.
Their “old school meets new age” approach is apparent in everything they do: The laing wontons take the traditional dish of stewed taro leaves and repackage it in a crunchy, salty and buttery wrapper, turning it into a perfect snack after a night out drinking. The Ube Cha-Cha drink—a cereal-infused almond milk—literally tastes like Fruity Pebbles because, well, they put Fruity Pebbles in it. The goal, the partners say, is to not only feed stomachs, but to feed memories, too.
“We want our food to be a gateway into learning more about our culture,” Alcasabas says. “For our kids, we want them to eat the kind of foods our parents would make us and ask questions about where it comes from, but present it in a way that is more interesting and familiar to them.”
Alcasabas and the Dayao brothers also strive to be intentional about the businesses they choose to collaborate with. It’s about keeping their parents’ culture alive by giving back to those OG influences—like the aforementioned Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop—while also being a part of a bigger movement for the future of Pinoy cuisine alongside places like Señor Sisig, Los Kuyas and FOB Kitchen, whom they credit as being at the forefront of the Bay Area scene.
Uncle Tito seems to be building on this exposure. The team is also applying its streetwear aesthetic and rap influences—alongside its fresh take on the cuisine—in a way that has major crossover appeal. From their specialty dishes and business label designs to the merchandise they offer, like a ’90s-era snapback cap with a modified Wu Tang Clan logo written in Tagalog, the Uncle Tito crew really does it all.
“Our goal is much bigger than food, because it pertains to preserving what was taught to us and pushing it forward to be taught to the next generation,” Alcasabas says. “There is a bigger mission in what we are doing. We want to leave a legacy and an imprint in our culture as first-generation Filipino Americans in the Bay Area.”
It reminds me of how hip hop DJs, especially back in the day, would sample older sounds from soul and funk albums, then scratch them up, repackage them in newly updated formats and spin that noise for an emcee to lace his or her poetry over. What Uncle Tito is doing feels just as radically creative to me. But instead of taking the sounds of the past, they’ve taken the aromas and textures and flavors of what their moms and uncles cooked up, and they’ve cut and remixed them for us all to nod our heads in unison to.
Uncle Tito is located at 59 9th Street in San Francisco; it's open for takeout Thursday through Sunday, 4–8 p.m., with in-person dining set to debut on June 15.
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