It’s lunchtime at Toto’s Grill in Hayward, and a few parents chat in Tagalog as they char skewers of marinated pork at the communal grill for their kids at home. They know to ask the staff to pull out the good stuff — isaw, squiggly chicken intestines.
Union City is home to large crowds waiting outside Toppings Too to enjoy huge portions of golden-fried lechon, steak with gravy and turmeric-tinged Java rice. Families in San Leandro eagerly wait for sizzling sisig at Parekoy Lutong Pinoy. They mix the crispy pork with the raw egg yolk right away.
These Filipino restaurants are just a taste of what’s available in the East Bay — and the options keep growing. This scene rivals that of Daly City which has been long regarded as the best place to find Filipino food in the Bay Area. So although people usually say Daly City is where people should get Filipino food in the region, that’s not the only answer. The East Bay might be the best place to find Filipino food in the Bay Area.
Pork sisig photographed by Parekoy Lutong Pioy in San Leandro (California), Friday, February 25, 2022.
Stephen Lam / The Chronicle
Kare-Kare photographed in San Leandro (California), Friday, February 25, 2022.
Stephen Lam / The Chronicle
“Nobody gets enough credit,” said Gemma Ballesteros, who grew up in the East Bay and opened her Filipino-inspired bakery Marley’s Treats in Hayward in 2020. “There’s a lot out here. It’s just a matter of finding it.”
According to census data, Alameda County is home to approximately 100,000 Filipinos. They live mainly in the southern part of the county, from San Leandro to Fremont. Union City is often referred to as the East Bay’s Little Manila, with Filipinos making up 20% of the population. By contrast, Daly City’s population is about 30% Filipino.
If there’s still doubt about whether this slice of the East Bay is an important center of Filipino culture, just look to the big Filipino chains. Jollibee, the beloved fast-food giant, and Red Ribbon, the mango cake bakery, both first settled in Union City. Red Ribbon expanded to Hayward in 2019. And Gerry’s Grill, one of the biggest restaurant chains in the Philippines, has just one Bay Area location: Union City.
Alex Retondo, owner of the Lumpia Co. in Oakland, said he doesn’t understand why the East Bay isn’t hyped as a must-visit Filipino food hub like Daly City. Perhaps it’s because people just don’t think to drive from Oakland or San Francisco to Union City to eat — after all, Union City is 20 miles from downtown Oakland, whereas Daly City is just 10 miles from downtown San Francisco.
Union City’s variety of Filipino options is worth the drive. There are homey turo-turo places where customers can choose slow-cooked stews from steam tables, and hip newcomers that bake purple cookies with ube (the Filipino purple yam).
“If I have a day off and I want to take someone and educate them with a food tour, I’m going to Union City. I’m going to Hayward,” Retondo said.
Upside down halo halo served with ube crack cheesecake from Cafe 86 in Union City, Calif.
Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle
Chris makes an order at Cafe 86 on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Union City , Calif. **Chris preferred to not use his last name or initial.
Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle
Retondo grew up with Hayward and has seen how Filipino food culture has grown since the ’80s. Retondo only remembers a few Filipino restaurants in those early days. Instead, he recalls that families shared trays with lumpia and barbecue sticks at church celebrations.
“They rolled it all by hand at mom’s house for a whole week to sell thousands of lumpia in a three-day weekend,”He said. “That happened in almost every church because food was our language for building friendships with other people.”
The informal food economy evolved into catering and then restaurants. Small markets selling dried mangoes and shrimp paste eventually gave way to large Filipino grocery stores like Seafood City in Union City.
The East Bay’s best Filipino restaurants specialize in classics done right, such as the creamy peanut stew known as kare-kare and breakfast plates brimming with tocino, a sweet cured pork. But that may explain another reason why they don’t have strong name recognition: It can be hard to know where to go. Many of these spots have been around for decades, and their owners tend to be older Filipino immigrants who don’t bother with websites or social media, said bakery owner Ballesteros.
Crispy binagoongan (pork cooked with shrimp paste) is served in an eggplant boat at Parekoy Lutong Pinoy San Leandro. Raw tomatoes and mango provide acidity and sweetness.
Stephen Lam/The Chronicle
That might be why Helen Minor, co-owner of Parekoy Lutong Pinoy, said she hasn’t noticed much change in terms of Filipino food in San Leandro since she moved there 21 years ago. Old-school spots close when their owners retire. Then, a new family buys it and reopens it with a new name.
There are exceptions, however, to the perceived lackluster changes. Her own restaurant opened in 2016. Parekoy immediately earned a rave review from then-critic Luke Tsai in the East Bay Express for the restaurant’s phenomenal pork sisig, which gets its sour notes from the Filipino citrus calamansi. Minor said that the business took off from there and that she now sees diners all over the Bay Area because of word-of-mouth.
Parekoy is a destination, but there are many other Filipino restaurants that are worth visiting. Tapsilog Express, a fast Filipino breakfast restaurant, is just a few miles from Parekoy. They offer quick Filipino breakfast plates with meat, rice, and a runny eggs all day. Fresh Pizza, a Filipino-slash pizza restaurant, offers sisig-filled cheesy pies just a few miles away. (It works.) Pistahan, located just a few miles away, serves a popular all-you can-eat buffet and expertly fries items to order like crispy pata, crackling, and fatty pork skin.
Classic spots tend to serve traditional halo-halo for dessert, but the East Bay also has options for modern Filipino sweets like warm ube pan de sal, a Filipino roll stuffed with creamy leche flan at Marley’s Treats. Earlier this year, Southern California’s Cafe 86 also entered the Union City scene with ube-flavored cheesecakes and drinks. Owner Ginger Lim-Dimapasok said the lines haven’t stopped since she opened the doors.
Parekoy Lutong Pinoy interior view. One of the most popular Filipino restaurants in East Bay.
Stephen Lam/The Chronicle
When Lim-Dimapasok began scouting spaces for Cafe 86’s first Bay Area location, she went to Daly City. It’s where everyone told her to look — except her sister, who lives in Union City. Lim-Dimapasok recounted driving through Daly City as well as South San Francisco, and then crossing over the bridge into East Bay. It was then that she realized she hadn’t really thought about the area.
“Once we did go there, it felt right,”She spoke. “It felt homey, like the Philippines.”
This small cafe chain in Southern California serves a variety o teas, coffees and sweets featuring Filipino ingredients. The ube truffles, and the upside-down halo-halo are a ube-forward take on the highly texture shaved-ice dessert. 34391 Alvarado-Niles Road, Union City. cafe-86.com
Isla is a great place to try Kapampangan-style Filipino food. This subset of Filipino cuisine is Spanish-influenced and is highly recommended. There are many options available, including the crispy, skinless version of the sweet sausage known longanisa and large family-style combo platters on banana leaves. 5720 Mowry School Road Newark. www.myislarestaurant.com
Gerry’s Grill, one of the most popular chains from the Philippines serves a wide selection of traditional dishes. The most popular options are crispy pata and beef-kare-kare. This is also one the few East Bay Filipino restaurants that offers outdoor seating. 31005 Courthouse Drive in Union City. gerrysgrill.com/usa/
You don’t need to ponder over a menu – you’re ordering chicken fried chicken. Maharlika is known for being the best Filipino fried chicken in East Bay, and it’s a popular choice for catering parties. Fremont, 3671 Thorton Ave. 510-794-5128
Marley’s is a homegrown bakery that uses leche flan, pandan and ube. The flan-topped ube-cheecake tarts are the best-sellers, but don’t overlook the ube-stuffed with flan ube pande salt. It is less sweet, but still rich. Hayward, 838 B St. marleystreats.com
Parekoy Lutong Pinoy
Parekoy’s favorite dish is the pork sisig. This sizzling, savory and sour platter contains crispy pork. You can count on anything crispy and porcine to be a safe bet. 14807 E. 14th St., San Leandro. parekoylutongpinoy.com
Popular is the all-you-can-eat buffet, which features everything from chicken adobo to heavy-spice dinuguan. You can also order freshly fried items from the menu, such a lumpia or crispy pata. There’s plenty to do in the cozy dining area. 13876 Doolittle Dr., San Leandro. 510-346-0000
The Original Luisa and Son Bakery
Luisa and Son is a typical Filipino bakery that sells whole eggs pies, pan de sal, sponge cakes with cheese toppings, and fluffy pan de sal. Try the ube Macapuno Ensaimada, which is a spiral-shaped pastry with chunks of young coconut and swirls of purpleyam. Union City, 4128 Dyer St. luisaandson.com
Toppers also available
This tiny spot attracts a large following due to its huge selection of traditional Filipino meats. There are only a few tables, so order takeout or walk across the street to the park. Union City, 3910 Smith St. 510-429-1058
This Filipino street food place allows you to grab skewers and pay before you cook them on a communal grill. Popular items such as fish cakes and intestines are also popular. But the best pork marinated with soy sauce, garlic, and brown sugar is the best. Hayward, 21933 Foothill Blvd. totos-grill.com
Cafe 86 is part of a vibrant Filipino bakery scene in this area of the East Bay. Vallejo-born Starbread’s steaming hot señorita bread is available in Newark. Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop serves turon, crispy fried banana spring rolls, and bibingka, the baked mochi-like rice cake, in Union City and Hayward. Manila’s Original Luisa and Son Bakeshop is a treasure trove of sweet breads flavored with ube, coconut and pandan in Union City.
Retodo believes that Oakland will be the center of modern, next-generation Filipino cuisine in the future. He sees more growth in cities like San Leandro and Hayward than in the already-crowded Daly City.
“When you have more potential market, more businesses will keep moving in,”He said. “I think the East Bay is going to have the most (Filipino) shops in America. But to me, as far as the essential everyday needs, they’re already all there.”