The Best Filipino Food in Philadelphia Was 35 Years in the Making
For 35 years, Jillian Encarnacion’s grandfather ran a lunch cart on 6th Street in Philadelphia, steps from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Born in the Philippines, Bas Encarnacion, or Lolo Bas, as he was known to his grandchildren, had a signature dish he sold to the Old City lunch crowd: pork and chicken shish kabobs—meat marinated for three days in a closely-guarded mixture that included soy, garlic, and vinegar—served solo or on an Amoroso roll.
Across the park, on 5th Street, the historic Bourse food hall was in the midst of a renovation, and during construction, Lolo Bas got sick. When he couldn’t stand long enough to work at his cart, family members swooped in to help him, taking shifts to keep it running. Exactly one year after he passed, the Bourse had reopened, and Jillian Encarnacion, along with her wife, Resa Mueller, friend and business partner Neal Santos, and chef Michael Cher, launched Filipino food stall Lalo.
“We just felt like it was really a great place to start something, to pick up what he was doing, continue it, and then grow it,” Encarnacion says.
The Filipino-American trio met over a decade ago—Santos sought out food that reminded him of home while he was a student at Temple, and at the time, the only place he could find it was Encarnacion’s family’s restaurant, Manila Bay. (Her father was born in the Philippines, and the chef ran restaurants in Northeast Philadelphia and Old City that have since closed.) They met Mueller through friends a few years later, and in 2015, the group, recognizing the dearth of Filipino food in the city, started a pop-up restaurant series called Pelago.
“Our mission was to bring Filipino food to Philadelphia,” says Santos.
Philadelphians loved it—the dinners sold out, which fueled the group to continue playing with the flavors they grew up eating. As they each worked other jobs, Santos as a food photographer, and Mueller and Encarnacion in the restaurant industry, they continued to run Pelago as a passion project.
“We weren’t doing it for the money; we were mostly just doing it to fill a hole, because we like this food,” says Mueller. “And we think that everyone should like this food because Filipino cuisine draws from literally every single other culture in the world.”
Besides introducing Filipino flavors and dishes to uninitiated Philadelphians, the group sought to highlight the unique brand of hospitality that defines their heritage.
“Our culture is hospitality,” says Santos. “We’re inviting people to the table, familiarizing them with our culture and our history, and putting our Filipino-American spin on it.”
That spin was evident during the Pelago pop-ups and remains evident at Lalo, the team’s 300-square-foot food stall inside the Bourse. Inside the lofty, 100-year-old Victorian building, among stands selling cheesesteaks and pizza by the slice, Lalo’s succinct, seasonally-rotating menu is filled with dishes inspired by family recipes. And while flavors in dishes remain true to the originals, there’s often a twist with ingredients.
The laing, for example—the spicy braised greens in coconut milk typically made with pork—is vegan. And in lieu of using the traditionally called-for taro greens, Lalo’s recipe highlights local winter spinach and kale. In the summer, the restaurant taps Farm 51—the urban farm run by Santos’ husband, Andrew Olson, next to their West Philly home—for bitter melon, eggplant, and plenty of tomatoes.
The peppers used in Lalo’s Suka 51, a spicy condiment, are also all from the farm.Crispy vegetable lumpia come with a house-made sweet chili sauce, while bowls of chicken adobo, or rich kaldereta—the intensely flavorful beef stew made with a base of liver pate, swimming with peppers, potatoes, and olives—come atop rice, with atchara, sharp and tang pickled peppers and carrots.
Back when her father ran restaurants, Encarnacion says one failed because Philly wasn’t ready for the high-end Filipino concept.
“He was doing really elegant stuff, but people didn’t want to pay,” Mueller adds. “There wasn’t a financial valuation of Asian cuisine, other than Japanese.”
These days, Encarnacion, Mueller, and Santos have undoubtedly made an impact on Philadelphia’s culinary scene with Lalo and Pelago, and are among a growing group of Filipino restaurants and eateries in the city, including Sarvida and Perla from chef Lou Boquila, and Flow State Coffeebar, selling chef Melanie Diamond-Manlusoc’s Filipino-inspired gelato and pastries. The challenge at Lalo, though, is striking a balance between serving dishes that would be at home in a more upscale restaurant—dishes that each take upwards of three days to make from scratch, using ingredients that are both local and imported from the Philippines—from their tiny fast-casual food stall.
The stand gets its name from the masculine and feminine words for grandparents in Tagalog—Lolo and Lola, respectively—and Lalo puts the matriarchy first. As everything is inspired by their grandparents and family, Lalo is still very much a family affair. Encarnacion’s sister works the counter, her cousin as a line cook, and siblings, aunts, and uncles—along with plenty of his old regulars—still visit Lalo for a taste of Lolo Bas’ chicken skewers. Just last week, the dish was on special for lunch.