The Face of SF’s Modern Filipino Food Movement Finally Has a Restaurant of His Own

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A spread of Filipino dishes, with a tomato and peach salad in the center.
At Abacá, something as seemingly simple as a tomato and peach salad might change the way people see Filipino food. (Melissa de Mata)

If any chef in San Francisco has mastered the art of the pop-up, Francis Ang has. As the chef for Pinoy Heritage, the Filipino-Californian pop-up series he’s run with his wife Dian since 2016, Ang has slung countless little cardboard trays of sisig fried rice at food festivals and hosted communal kamayan feasts as warm and welcoming as a dinner party with friends. Even out of tiny, cobbled-together kitchens, he’s assembled the kind of precise, prettily plated tasting menu dishes that compare favorably to any Michelin-endorsed masterpiece.

And now, finally, Ang and his team are opening a full-fledged restaurant of their own. Located inside the brand new Kimpton Alton Hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf, Abacá opens today, Aug. 16, with an exciting, small plates–focused dinner menu from Ang and chef de cuisine Danica Aviles, as well as a panaderia serving Filipino breads and pastries during the morning and afternoon. 

Longganisa pork sausage skewer, with egg yolk for dipping.
Longganisa pork sausage skewer, with egg yolk for dipping. (Melissa de Mata)

The idea is to carry forward with Pinoy Heritage’s primary mission: to introduce lesser known, regionally specific Filipino dishes to Bay Area diners. In other words, Ang says, “We’re using Abacá as an opportunity to show that Filipino food is not just your typical adobo and pancit.”

In many ways, Ang has become the face of the Bay Area’s modern Filipino food movement over the course of the past five years, doing as much as anyone to expand diners’ understanding of what Filipino food is and has the potential to be. The driving force behind the Pinoy Heritage pop-ups was the series of extended research trips that Francis and Dian would take to the Philippines each year, traveling to as many of the country’s 7,000 individual islands as they could. On a trip to the southern island of Mindanao, for instance, they learned about chicken pyanggang, or grilled chicken blackened with coconut ash—a dish Ang had never even heard of during the 19 years he lived in the Philippines. Now it’s part of a whole section of of skewers on Abacá’s menu that’s meant as a nod to traditional Filipino barbecue.

What sets Ang apart from a lot of other Filipino chefs in the Bay Area, though, is that he isn’t only interested in serving dishes in their most straightforward form. His pop-ups are known for presenting traditional dishes with a touch of fine-dining elegance (Ang’s background, after all, was as a fine dining pastry chef)—for pushing the envelope on what modern, California-inflected Filipino food might look like.

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One of Ang’s favorite dishes on Abacá’s opening menu is a tomato and peach salad that doesn’t look Filipino at all. But, as Ang explains, “If you taste it, it brings you back.” The salad has an herb sauce that transports diners back to the Filipino wet markets. It has smoked fish in it, which transports them to the breakfast table, since Filipinos traditionally eat smoked fish with eggs. 

“There’s no boundaries; there’s no rules,” Ang says. “We interpret Filipino food in our own way, knowing its history and past.”

For years, there has been talk about whether Filipino food has developed enough “mainstream” crossover appeal in the Bay Area to support an upscale Filipino restaurant. The region has long been home to dozens upon dozens of superlative “mom-and-pop” Filipino restaurants catering  mainly to the Filipino community, especially in the Daly City area. And it’s become a hotspot, too, for hip Filipino American joints slinging things like sisig burritos, creatively stuffed lumpia and loaded fries. But the few attempts at something approaching Filipino “fine dining” haven’t enjoyed a long shelf life: Poleng Lounge had a great run in the late aughts, but it never marketed itself as a purely Filipino restaurant—and felt more like a nightclub than a fine dining restaurant. Polk Street’s 1760 launched a promising and elegant three-course Filipino prix fixe last March only to have it get squashed by the pandemic shutdown just one month in.

Abacá will serve as an interesting test case, then.

Pinoy Heritage, for its part, was never purely a fine dining venture; some of its best pop-ups served straight-up street food. Even during the pandemic, Pinoy Heritage straddled both approaches: meal kits that allowed customers to assemble a bona fide fine dining tasting menu at home and value-oriented kamayan takeout feasts, each focused on a different region of the Philippines.

A trio of Filipino pastries, plated on top of banana leaves
A trio of pastries from Abacá's panaderia. (Melissa de Mata)

According to Ang, Abacá will embrace all of those different aspects of the cuisine. What’s clear, though, is that the Bay Area has never had a Filipino restaurant quite like it, where diners might splurge on a $55 dry-aged ribeye served bistek style, craft cocktails (courtesy of Pacific Cocktail Haven’s Kevin Diedrich) and scallop pancit made with homemade noodles—where the attached bakery sells some of the prettiest laminated ensaymada you’ll ever see, and where hotel guests can even call in for room service.

“Are we fine dining? It will be very, very fine,” Ang says. “But the idea is to have all the good stuff about fine dining, minus the stuffiness.”

Abacá is now open, with both indoor and outdoor seating, at the Kimpton Alton Hotel (2700 Jones St., San Francisco). Dinner is served Monday through Saturday, 5–9pm; the panaderia is open 7am–2:30pm.