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The Best Filipino Restaurant in the Bay Area Isn’t a Restaurant at All

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A woman in a black headwrap prepares Filipino food inside a restaurant kitchen.
Executive Chef Kai Torres-Cansino prepares an order of kare-kare in the kitchen of Tipunan, a restaurant serving Filipino comfort food at the Oakland Food Hall ghost kitchen facility on May 3, 2024.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Frisco Foodies is a recurring column in which a San Francisco local shares food memories of growing up in a now rapidly changing city.


n 1986, when my family first moved to San Francisco from Angeles City, in the Philippines, we were enamored with American fast food: seafood pizza at Shakey’s and Uno’s deep dish on Friday nights, a bucket of KFC with corn and coleslaw, and a “choco shake” from the “McDo’s” drive-thru on Gellert on the way to Lolo’s house.

But on special occasions, we would gather the family for a big Filipino feast. We’d head to Fiesta Filipina in Daly City and eat pancit palabok and lechon kawali in an upscale setting, amongst other Filipinos who longed for that sense of community. I remember shifting uncomfortably on the bamboo chairs that mirrored my own living room set at home, my mom always urging me to order the fresh young coconut juice with the red straw peeking out of its top hat, and the halo-halo for dessert. Though we usually ate these dishes at home, the experience of enjoying them out among our people was what made growing up Pinay in The City feel special.

Back then, there were so many big Filipino family restaurants to choose from. If you grew up Filipino on the Peninsula in the ’80s and ’90s, you know how to finish the vintage restaurant jingle, “Tito Rey’s…” To this day, any Gen Xer or elder Millennial worth their soy sauce will respond, “…Night or Day!” The bustling 200-seat eatery-turned-nightclub in South San Francisco, with its full bar and ballroom, accommodated the large wave of Filipinos who immigrated to the Bay Area after World War II, increasing the population fivefold. Sadly, the restaurant is no longer around, but the memories of that jingle — and a time when newly-immigrated parents like mine had a place to dine, drink and dance the night away — are burned into my brain.

Vintage photo of a man singing karaoke at a Filipino restaurant in the 1980s. A group of children seated at a table look on.
A young Rocky Rivera (2nd from the right, in green) watches a karaoke singer at a restaurant in Angeles City in the Philippines during the mid-1980s. (Courtesy of Rocky Rivera)

And as we grew older, it was South City establishments like Tito Rey’s and Solita’s that allowed my dance troupe to use their restaurant as a venue because they always had a ballroom — or, at the very least, a dance floor. It was there that I learned that a “Filipino goodbye” was the opposite of an Irish one. Kids like me would whine to their parents “Can we go now?” while they made their leisurely rounds bidding farewell.


It’s hard to imagine doing the same now that I’m the parent. It seems like most of today’s Filipino restaurants have either gone fine dining or fast fusion — and, in the meantime, all of those big, family-focused spots have closed. None of the new places are jumping on a Saturday night with a live cover band and couples dressed to the nines, cha-cha-ing it up to the latest hits. Those “third places” for Bay Area Filipinos have largely disappeared, even as our food has finally hit the mainstream. Few places are providing for our need to be fed and entertained.

To be honest, not many of them are serving the kind of Filipino food I want to eat either. This upbringing of abundance made my palate sharp, discerning and always waxing nostalgic. I constantly compare the food at local Fil-Am restaurants to my own mother or grandmother’s style of cooking. And since both sides of my family hail from Pampanga, the culinary capital of the Philippines, I’m not often impressed.

Pork sisig in a plastic takeout container.
An order of Tipunan’s pork sisig, served in a takeout container. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Until one day in 2020 when I really needed a plate of comfort food and found it at Tipunan in Oakland — in my opinion, the best classic Filipino food in all of the Bay Area. Deep in the throes of the pandemic, the restaurant’s rich pork belly kare-kare and tangy sinigang provided solace when I was grieving the loss of my mother, strengthening my connection to the motherland that I felt was jeopardized after her passing. And when my father-in-law passed six months after that, we put a plate of his favorite — pork sisig — on our family altar, again courtesy of Tipunan. We ate a lot of takeout during that time, with condolences offered in the form of Venmo pings and food delivery gift cards. It was the ideal consolation for the void we all felt, except for one thing: The place didn’t exist. Which is to say, it didn’t have a physical restaurant space beyond its DoorDash ordering menu.


On a recent Friday, Chef Kai Torres-Cansino meets me in the small dining area of Oakland Food Hall, a ghost kitchen facility off East 12th, along with her partner in life and business, Jojo Cansino. They are the founders of Tipunan, which in Tagalog means “gathering place”— an irony not lost on me when I made a vow to finally track them down. Before they moved into this new space in Jingletown, there was no dine-in portion of the restaurant, just a kitchen a few blocks away off East 18th. Even now, the handful of picnic tables outside their new facility are mostly occupied by DoorDash drivers rather than actual customers.

Exterior of the Oakland Food Hall ghost kitchen facility.
The exterior of Oakland Food Hall, which markets itself as a “restaurant co-op” primarily specializing in to-go meals. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Inside these ghost kitchens, Chef Kai cooks her homestyle dishes from Bicol and Pampanga, the cities in the Philippines where her mother and father grew up, respectively. These recipes were passed down from generation to generation, and growing up, she remembers experiencing them most vividly during big reunions with her father’s side of the family in Pampanga.

“Have you tried my tocino?” she asks, referring to the specialty dish of sweet marinated pork. “I really love it because it’s really Kapampangan tocino.” She tells me about how she tweaked the recipe to make it taste more similar to the carabao style that’s popular in her hometown. “It’s a little bit sweet-and-sour taste but very Kapampangan. It’s so good,” she says with pride.

Growing up, she learned how to cook from her mom: first chopping tomatoes, then moving up to boiling water and, later, sautéeing and grilling. Her family owned bowling lanes in Manila and Pampanga, so they always ran a cafe on-site, giving Kai the experience to know what good food should taste like — and, more importantly, how to make it to order.

A spread of Filipino dishes includes kare-kare, a classic stew with a thick savory peanut sauce. For dining in, the Oakland Food Hall offers a handful of seats inside and several picnic tables outside — though often these are occupied by delivery app drivers. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

During this visit to Tipunan, I’ve ordered my usuals: pork rib sinigang, pork sisig, crispy pork belly kare-kare and turon, or caramelized banana lumpia, for dessert. As usual, the sinigang is perfectly sour with tamarind. The kare-kare comes with its savory peanut sauce, bok choy and cabbage kept separate from the ulam, like my Lola used to do, to prevent it from getting soggy — and of course, the crispy pork belly, which takes at least 24 hours to prepare, is spectacular. They also offer healthier tofu versions of their sisig and kare-kare, though Chef Kai stresses that she’s “not a fan of fusion.” “That’s why the food is very classic,” she says.

Serving classic Filipino food is easier said than done, as many in the diaspora are extra harsh on businesses that don’t match their taste of home cooking. Any Filipino restaurant will share the same review: “It’s good, but not as good as my Nanay’s and Lola’s.” But Tipunan’s many four- and five-star reviews on DoorDash differ, likening the chef’s cooking to their own family’s spread, a feeling that hits the heart as much as it fills the stomach.

While Chef Kai has the seasoned palate, her partner, Jojo, is the one who surprised her with a business proposal. “The idea came about because at home, I don’t do any of the cooking because I am usually busy at work,”Jojo explains. “My wife does all the cooking.” So Jojo proposed starting their own business, at first just selling Kai’s prized banana bread and then, eventually, her Filipino home cooking.

A touch screen menu for a Filipino restaurant.
At Oakland Food Hall, food from over 20 restaurants can be ordered online or on a touchscreen. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I have the spirit of an entrepreneur and I’ve been working for myself for, maybe, fifteen years. And [Kai] was working for a corporate food service,” Jojo recalls. She says she inherited that knack for business from her grandmother, Corazon M. Espino, the first woman governor of the Nueva Vizcaya province in the Philippines. Because she and Kai started the business during the pandemic, they prioritized starting small with a kitchen that had a low start-up cost. For a whole year, it was just the two of them working late into the night and washing dishes afterward. When they got an opportunity to relocate to Oakland Food Hall, it was the streamlined system and better access point for delivery drivers that sealed the deal.

I must admit that I panicked during the time Tipunan went offline to move locations. I thought to myself that it was too good to be true, wondering about the volatility of starting their business in Oakland, which only has two other traditional Filipino restaurants in the entire city. When they finally went back online, I vowed to track down who was behind this mysterious restaurant with zero social media presence and not even a storefront to promote their business. But now, seeing Tipunan thrive amongst the other kitchens in the food hall, I have hope in this scrappy contender borne from a shared entrepreneurial spirit and love for our culture’s traditional recipes.

As I look around the massive building that houses over twenty partner restaurants in one place, I marvel at its capacity to feed the community, while also employing multiple businesses in one location. It touts itself as a “restaurant co-op” whose mission is “to become your go-to spot for to-go meal.” Inside is a maze of kitchens that are more similar to studios in Hollywood lots than actual restaurants. It’s hard to tell if these “cloud” or “ghost kitchens” are good or bad for the actual workers, but they were a necessity during the pandemic when we were all forced to stay at home indefinitely.

And since Tipunan moved in from their previous ghost kitchen in May of 2022, they’ve increased their staff to five and expanded their menu to include bulgogi tacos and burritos. “Some people lost their job and closed their restaurants during the pandemic, and we were the lucky ones because that’s when Tipunan was born,” says Kai. Unlike a full-service restaurant, they’ve been able to experiment with new items and ideas with lower risk, first introducing them to existing customers before branching out.

Deep down, however, Jojo still wishes they could open a dine-in location. In fact, the couple first met at a Filipino restaurant on the Peninsula — one that still has events and live music on Saturday nights. “I want to have a space like that, where people on the weekends say, ‘Hey what are you doing? Let’s go hang out at Tipunan. Let’s get something to eat.’ And when you get there, there’s entertainment, we have fun and we create memories,” she says. The most important thing, however, is that they now have a business that’s able to support five employees. “That to me, is rewarding by itself.”

Two Filipino women in black "Tipunan" shirts sit laughinh on a picnic table.
Founders Jojo Cansino (left) and Chef Kai Torres-Cansino sit on a picnic table outside of Tipunan’s ghost kitchen facility. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

With so many full-fledged restaurants in the Bay Area still unable to operate seven days a week, those childhood memories of being out and about eating FIlipino food with my family feel like ancient history. Hearing elders belt out karaoke hits, their voices hoarse with raucous laughter and drowned in San Miguel beer, felt like a piece of home — except it was right there in South City. A place to find the love of your life, even, like Kai and Jojo did.

For now, I’m just grateful that a place like Tipunan exists to preserve those old recipes and to feed us during all of those important family celebrations — even if we’re laying out the takeout cartons on the dining room table at home.

And, for Chef Kai, at least, the idea of running one of those big family restaurants that used to rule the Bay Area’s Filipino scene is more than a little daunting. “At this kitchen, we’re already here 12 hours a day. How much more at a dine-in to maintain the consistency and quality, and then have the entertainment and bar? I’m gonna be drunk every night!” she laughs.

Tipunan is open for online orders, with pickup available at 2353 E.12th St. in Oakland.


Rocky Rivera is a journalist, emcee, author and activist from San Francisco. She has four musical projects out, three of those with her label Beatrock Music. She released her first book, entitled Snakeskin: Essays by Rocky Rivera, in 2021.

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