Welcome to the Dish, a series that will delve into San Diego’s of the moment or iconic dishes and the chefs and stories behind them.
That Filipino food exists in San Diego isn’t new. Casual, cafeteria-style point-and-plate establishments across the county have served the community for decades. But even though the area is home to one of the largest Filipino populations in the nation, Filipino fine-dining hasn’t yet taken hold in San Diego the way it has in other cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C. By highlighting Filipino cuisine on her menu at 2021 Eater Award winning-restaurant Animae, Filipino-American chef Tara Monsod is one of a handful of local chefs that’s hoping to put Filipino food on the fine-dining stage.
Monsod, who also cooked at Juniper & Ivy, Tender Greens, and Herringbone, stepped in as Animae’s chef last year after serving as the restaurant’s executive sous chef. In that role, then-executive chef Nate Appleman encouraged Monsod to develop some Filipino dishes for the menu, a professional first for Monsod, which includes her popular take on classic kare kare.
How Monsod Makes Animae’s Kare Kare Short Rib
Monsod tells Eater that unless you seek it out or have a family friend that’ll introduce you to it, kare kare is more difficult to hunt down compared to adobo or pancit, which are both common gateway dishes to Filipino food.
A typical kare kare recipe involves oxtail, and vegetables like eggplant, bok choy, and sitaw, or long green beans, cooked in a peanut-based sauce. It might include annatto seed for coloring, or other meat and vegetable combinations generally determined by whose kitchen it’s cooking in. The stew-like dish is almost always served with bagoong, a fermented shrimp paste which experienced eaters add to their taste.
At Animae, Monsod uses braised short rib instead of oxtail. The dish also features grilled eggplant and sitaw that are “knotted, to show off its length”, with the pungent bagoong incorporated into a flavored oil. Monsod, who often shops for the Asian ingredients herself, doesn’t stray too far from the dish’s traditional preparation and ingredient list by design.
“I wanted people to know our flavors, not an interpretation of it and not know what the original is,” Monsod tells Eater. At the same time, Monsod’s kare kare short rib dish is first introduction for Animae diners unfamiliar with traditional Filipino ingredients.
For people who don’t know the cuisine, Monsod says, “It (Filipino food) could be intimidating.” For example, “Bagoong and fish sauce, if you don’t use it right the first time, you could ruin the whole experience and it could turn you off. My goal is to set it up for them in a way so it’s just ready to eat.” Monsod adds, “You can literally just dig in.”
A Brief History of Filipino Kare Kare
Though some diners might be new to kare kare, the hearty dish is actually centuries old with somewhat murky origins. One theory is that the dish was developed by the Muslim Moro people who lived in present day Pampanga, a province located northwest of Manila, who called it kari.
Or, it might have come from the Tagalog people whose rendition of the dish was referred to in Pampanga as kari-kari, roughly meaning similar to kari but poorly executed. History also suggests the dish might have been invented by the Indian soldiers the British brought with them to the island nation in the 18th century during its brief occupation.
Wherever kare kare’s true origins lie, the present-day dish was likely influenced by a number of cultures.
Translating Filipino Food Into Fine Dining
Back at Animae, wagyu steaks grace the menu alongside several other elegantly constructed Filipino dishes, from starters to desserts, that include ahi tuna kinilaw and an ube sundae dessert from pastry chef Laura Warren.
“To be able to listen to good music, sit in a dining room and have a good time and be on a date or hangout with your family, or whatever it may be… that’s pretty cool,” Monsod notes, referring to the Animae experience, and of a cuisine that has not been considered fine-dining fare, even amongst Filipinos themselves. “It’s nice to not see [Filipino food] in a box, packed in and smooshed… not that it’s not delicious,” Monsod says.
Looking ahead, Monsod has visions of adding a scallop sinigang to the Animae menu and is currently toying with a souring agent, most likely lemon, which isn’t a traditional ingredient to the tart Filipino soup, “but it works.”
Where Monsod Eats Filipino Food in San Diego
Monsod also acknowledges other San Diego chefs like Phillip Esteban and DJ Tangalin, who have been working to expand the local Filipino food scene, and has some of her own go-to spots around the county where she likes to find classic Filipino dishes. In National City, she frequents Erlinda’s Filipino Cuisine for combination plates, gets late night eats at Zarlitos Family Restaurant, and recommends Manila Sunset, a chain with locations in National City and Mira Mesa, for bibinka, a sweet and savory coconut rice cake.