Bobby Punla gathers his ingredients on a long butcher block table and begins thinly slicing scallions and dicing red onions with perfect precision. Behind him, Jan Dela Paz fans the coals in a hibachi grill to a bright-orange glow. When the coals are just right, he grills slabs of marinated pork belly and butt until they’re lightly charred and crisp at the edges.
Jan wafts the smoke from the grill up to his face, inhales deeply, and says, “That’s what the Philippine streets smell like.”
The two men are preparing sisig, a traditional Filipino dish of chopped pork, onions, and chiles made sour with vinegar or calamansi juice and served on a searing-hot cast-iron platter. Sisig is what’s known in the Philippines as a pulutan, or bar snack, usually consumed with beer or other alcoholic beverages.
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The concept of sisig as a sour salad has existed in the Philippines since the 1700s. Through the years, the dish evolved to use meat from boiled pigs’ heads, which in the early 1970s often went unused in the mess halls and commissaries at Clark Air Base in Angeles City, Philippines. By 1974, Lucia Cunanan was serving the now-popular grilled version at Aling Lucing’s Sisig in Angeles City, earning her the informal title of the Sisig Queen.
Bobby and Jan met when they were both cooks at Ramen Shop in Oakland, California. The two bonded over their shared Filipino heritage. Bobby is an American-born Filipino, and Jan was born and raised in Manila.
Bobby confesses, “It wasn’t until I met [Jan] that I realized I didn’t know anything about my roots. I knew more about Japanese food, Korean food. I knew how to cook French, Italian. I didn’t really know anything about my own culture. All I really knew how to make was, like, adobo and lumpia. It was a depressing realization.”
In 2017, with the encouragement and support of the owners of Ramen Shop, the two cooks decided they wanted to spread awareness of Filipino food, and they established Likha as a pop‑up restaurant. After a successful start, they eventually landed an 18-month stint cooking their brand of Filipino food, which they describe as California Filipino, at an Oakland sports bar from mid-2018 to December 2019.
“One of the reasons we did sisig at the pop-up was because we knew that no one knew Filipino food at the time, and any time you hear and smell a sizzling plate of pork walk by you, you’re gonna look and want to order it. It was our way to flex,” says Bobby. He explains that the hot platter actually serves an additional, and more important, purpose of rendering the fat and crisping the bits of pork.
SisigA traditional Filipino bar snack found a place to shine in California.
Prior to grilling the meat, Bobby and Jan marinate it in a mixture of cane vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and onion powders, and gochugaru. “The marinade is about 60 percent vinegar to 40 percent soy sauce to give it a nice tang, as opposed to a soy-saucy caramel flavor,” Jan says. They use garlic and onion powders in the marinade because fresh garlic and onions would burn on the grill.
Jan makes the garlic fried rice they serve with the sisig by frying finely chopped garlic until it’s golden brown and then quickly straining it through a sieve set over a bowl to reserve the garlic-flavored oil. He tosses cooked jasmine rice in a bowl with some of the garlic oil, a few heaping spoonfuls of the crisp fried garlic, and a hearty pinch of salt.
By comparison, the homestyle version of garlic fried rice is made by browning the garlic in a Filipino-style skillet and then adding the rice and stirring to cook it briefly and distribute the garlic.
Garlic Fried RiceA simple technique infuses this rice with intense garlic flavor.
Bobby combines the chopped pork with homemade mayonnaise, calamansi juice, onions, and chiles. He explains, “There are so many versions of sisig, because, you know, 7,000 [Philippine] islands, 7,000 different ways of making it. Some are just grilled; some they don’t use the sizzle platter; some are just the vinegar marinade; some are deep-fried; some are ‘wet,’ which we’re doing when we cover it in mayonnaise.” Jan chimes in to add, “The mayonnaise creates another layer of flavor and helps form a crust.”
The two approach the sizzle platter and take turns quickly building the dish with the various ingredients. Their movements seem telepathic as they anticipate what’s needed next, where the other is standing, and which way to pass ingredients.
One spreads the pork in an even layer on the hot platter as it immediately begins to smoke and hiss. The other begins layering on the onions, scallions, and chiles. Finally, they crack an egg on top—a common addition—and sprinkle the sisig with crumbled chicharrones.
While Likha is currently on hiatus, Bobby and Jan reflect on their run serving Filipino food to the sports bar clientele. In the beginning, the experience pushed them to cook more traditional bar food, such as chicken wings, than they would have preferred. But as the months went on, they found that people were increasingly coming for their Filipino food: their kare-kare (oxtail and peanut stew), their sisig.
Bobby says, “In the beginning we weren’t that confident how people would receive Filipino food, but they eventually came out searching for it. They wanted it.”