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Your Favorite Filipino American Chef Was Probably a DJ or B-Boy Back in the Day

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A plate of lumpia topped with slices of hard-boiled egg.
One of the Lumpia Company's remixed lumpia. Founder Alex Retodo was a club promoter before he became a chef. He's one of the Bay Area's many Filipino American food entrepreneurs who have roots in the region's hip-hop scene. (Courtesy of Kultivate Labs)

You can’t tell the story of Bay Area hip-hop without a tip of the cap to all of the Filipino Americans who helped shape the scene — from the legion of mobile DJ crews and B-boys/B-girls to the influential emcees, producers and graffiti artists. It makes sense, then, that the 2023 edition of Undiscovered SF, San Francisco’s preeminent Filipino American culture fest, is framed as a months-long celebration of hip-hop. This year is hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, after all.

Still, when the block party kicks off in the SoMa Pilipinas cultural district on Aug. 19, one of the biggest draws will be the same thing that attracts a crowd to any big Filipino gathering: the food.

And as Desi Danganan — executive director of Kultivate Labs, the nonprofit that organizes the event — explains it, the Bay Area’s vibrant Fil-Am food scene today is itself deeply rooted in the community’s ties to hip-hop. Back in the ’80s, among Filipino Americans in the Bay, “everyone and their mom was a DJ,” Danganan recalls. Then there was a stretch of time when it seemed like everyone became a club promoter. Danganan remembers when he was in his twenties, the promotion crews running the nightclubs in SoMa were 90% Filipino.

These days? Those same folks are operating some of the region’s most popular food trucks and pop-up restaurants.

“All of a sudden, the new DJ was the chef,” Danganan says. “Chefs started popping up, rave-style, in places that weren’t necessarily kitchens.” He describes something akin to a DJ/dancer/club promoter to chef pipeline: Alex Retodo was a club promoter before he started rolling lumpia at the Lumpia Company, which he co-owns with E-40. Evan Kidera was a rapper before he co-founded Señor Sisig — arguably the single most famous Bay Area food truck. The couple behind Filipino-Japanese pop-up Ox and Tiger were dancers before they were chefs. So were the co-founders of the Chase Center food stall Sarap Shop. And Undiscovered SF booked Rod Reyes, of the San Jose–based food truck Barya Kitchen, as a DJ for one of the festival’s earliest incarnations, before he’d even started his food business.

Pork sisig served with a slice of lemon and a mound of white rice.
A plate of pork sisig from a previous edition of Undiscovered SF. The annual festival has always celebrated the Bay Area’s Filipino street food scene. (Courtesy of Kultivate Labs)

The kind of trajectory that Danganan describes isn’t uniquely Filipino, of course. Some of it is rooted in the entrepreneurial spirit and hustle culture that undergirds the whole Bay Area hip-hop scene. And if the Bay Area’s Filipino American community produced some of the most legendary DJs in hip-hop history, it’s only natural that that kind of creativity would also translate into other artistic endeavors. “They’re really gifted at taking ingredients and remixing them to create something new,” Danganan explains — say, a bacon cheeseburger lumpia or a sisig burrito. The only difference? “Now they’re not beats. They’re flavors.”

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All of the aforementioned DJ- or dancer-turned-chefs — and many more — will be on hand to sling food for at least one iteration of this year’s Undiscovered SF block party. Organizers decided hip-hop’s big birthday was too monumental to limit to a single afternoon, so it’ll host three separate parties over the course of the next three months. Each one will have a specific theme: Aug. 19 will be “Classics and Throwbacks.” Sept. 16 will focus on “The Future.” And Oct. 21 will be “The Present.”

Food highlights at Aug. 19’s kickoff event will include Señor Sisig and Tasty Tings, whose Jamaican-Filipina-Chinese-Creole owner incorporates Filipino ingredients like longaniza pork into her Jamaican patties. The September and October lineups will include Barya Kitchen and a special collaboration between Ox and Tiger, Sarap Shop and lechon specialist Jeepney Guy.

A paper tray of turon (banana lumpia) topped with ube ice cream and sprinkled with ube crumbles.
Turontastic’s take on turon, or banana lumpia, topped with ube ice cream. (Courtesy of Kultivate Labs)

According to Danganan, one of the local Filipino food scene’s newest trends is the proliferation of sweets shops and bakery pop-ups, many of which cropped up during the pandemic. This, too, will be reflected at Undiscovered SF: There will be plenty of ube treats to be had.

Most of the offerings will come from small local purveyors, with one notable exception. In a classic case of knowing your audience, representatives from SPAM HQ will be on hand to pass out free samples of the brand’s new flavor — maple-flavored Spam — to the assembled crowd of noted canned meat lovers.

Undiscovered SF will host block parties in the SoMa Pilipinas cultural district, at and around The Parks @5M (44 Mary St., San Francisco) on Aug. 19, Sep. 16 and Oct. 21, from noon to 6 p.m.. The all-ages event is free and open to the public, but you can reserve a free ticket (and commemorative pin) online.

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