Filipino is familiar at Bistro Luneta

Filipino cooking is difficult for outsiders to like. Those of us who have not grown up eating it, who don’t have a familial attachment to bangus (milkfish) or balut (duck egg with embryo), don’t get it when some Pacific Islander goes emotional over a pot of kare-kare (oxtail, tripe and peanut stew) that reminds him of dinner at grandma’s.

Though we have a huge Filipino population in the Bay Area — second only to Chinese — Filipino restaurants are barely on the culinary map. Recently, a couple of stylish though moderately priced Filipino restaurants have tiptoed into San Francisco and San Mateo and are attempting to reach out to new patronage. Emmanuel Santos, the chef at two-year-old Bistro Luneta on the Peninsula, told me, “Filipinos have been in America for 100 years and no one knows about the cuisine.” He wants this to change.

To that end, Santos and Bistro Luneta owner John Guazon have built a cheerful, modern restaurant with a small dining room beneath a high, colorful, tin-paneled ceiling. An immaculate stainless-steel open kitchen is as large as the dining area. Vintage photographs of the islands make me want to hop on a plane.

The reassuringly small menu reconfigures a number of Filipino favorites to appeal to a lighter, more California palate. My favorite appetizer, takwa’t baboy ($8.50) combined creamy deep fried cubes of tofu with grilled pork belly, cut into thin strips. The rich pork — and a dark sauce of soy and vinegar — seasons the delicately crusted tofu.

Skewers of buttery grilled pork sate ($7.50), coated with ground peanuts and a sweet, teriyaki-like sauce needed more shredded green papaya salad, a fantastic accompaniment that borrows from Thailand. Bangus maki ($8), a deep fried sushi roll filled with a strong salted milkfish — a Filipino staple — salted egg, tomato and onion, draws on the Japanese kitchen.

As Santos says, “Japan gets its tuna from the Philippines. Why shouldn’t we borrow from them?”

Santos’ version of lumpia, Shanghai pouches ($7.50), uses won ton skins drawn up and twisted around a filling of ground pork, delicious when dipped into tart, salty sari-sari sauce.

The most thrillingly indulgent Filipino dish for me will always be crispy pata ($18), deep fried pork knuckle with a thick crust of pork crackling and moist gelatinous flesh inside — its fattiness cut by soy-vinegar dipping sauce. Santos does a magnificent one, though I wanted twice as much baby bok choi on the side for karmic balance.

His captivating invention of pato sa gata ($18) — very moist, rare duck breast slices interleaved with bay and onion — is surrounded by thick, white, ground coconut sauce, slivers of raw green chile and a rim of dry red chile, so that you can make each bite as spicy as you like.

Lumpia reappear at dessert in the form of turon ($7.50) — banana and jack fruit spring rolls — whose savoriness is offset with caramel sauce and strawberry ice cream. A lovely, velvety creme brulee is perfumed with barako, Philippine coffee beans ($6.50).

Manila-born Santos, who graduated from hotel and restaurant school there, externed in Switzerland, cooked at the Mandarin Oriental in Manila and speaks perfect English. He walks a fine line between his grandma’s cooking — the way he likes to eat — and what he thinks will please a broader audience. He needs to keep everything bright and true, not just accessible.

Patricia Unterman is author of “The San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

Bistro Luneta

Location: 615 Third Ave., San Mateo

Contact: (650) 344-0041 or www.bistroluneta.com

Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 5 to 10 p.m.

Price range: Appetizers $6.50 to $12; main courses $14 to $22

Recommended dishes: Deep-fried tofu with pork belly, sate Luneta; Shanghai pouches; crispy pork knuckle; duck breast with coconut sauce; turon

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