“Have you eaten?”
It’s a common question in many Filipino homes. In fact, according to Evan Kidera, it was often used as a greeting at the home of his longtime friend and current business partner, Gil Payumo.
Kidera, who co-founded Señor Sisig with Payumo in 2010, is not Filipino. Nevertheless, he was a fixture at the Payumo household in Daly City when the two were growing up. It was there that he first developed a familiarity and appreciation for the cuisine that would ultimately form the foundation of the pair’s beloved Bay Area food truck fleet and expanding local restaurant chain.
The Señor Sisig team opened their third brick-and-mortar location this week in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. After launching two previous physical locations—in the Mission District and Downtown Oakland—the newest location feels like a particularly auspicious milestone for the brand. The Ferry Building is not only a major commuter hub; it is also a tourism magnet and a highly recognizable architectural symbol of the city. Securing a storefront there is an unmistakable indication of a business’ mainstream appeal.
But back when Kidera and Payumo started their culinary adventure—with just one food truck and a dream—their path to success was far from certain.
When the first Señior Sisig food truck hit the streets in 2010, banking on sisig, a traditional Filipino dish of simmered pork, calamansi, egg and onion, was a risk. It was several years before the late Anthony Bourdain used his platform to rave about the virtues of street food staples like sisig—which is traditionally made with an assortment of pork cuts that many Westerners find undesirable.
Sisig is often served as a palutan, a food eaten while drinking alcohol. It sits on a table in the center of a circle of chairs where people pick at it, drink their beers and share stories with each other.
In the Pampanga province of the Philippines, the traditional method of preparing sisig is to boil slices of pig meat with onions and peppers and then mix it all together with a vinegar dressing.
Kidera and Payumo figured that sisig would work well inside a burrito. But instead of using pork jowl, they opted for a heartier cut of meat: pork shoulder. With this, the sisig could best replicate the charred and grilled textures of fillings like carnitas and carne asada—albeit with a slightly sour, vinegar note to help it stand out from other, more familiar burrito fillings.
“And we add to that our special adobo fried rice, creamy cilantro sauce and…” as Kidera said in his best Guy Fieri affectation: “We’re in flavor town, man!”
Sharing is Caring
“Food sharing was significant in my experience growing up around Filipino families,” Kidera said, recalling both the family parties he attended at the Payumo house—as well as the days that followed the feast.
Payumo, looking to make use of the mounds of leftover sisig, would often make quesadillas with the meat. “I would take the leftover pork sisig from our family party the night before and heat up a flour tortilla with melted Jack cheese and throw in the sisig with some salsa, jalapeños and sour cream,” he said.
“Maybe the roots of Señor Sisig go back to that,” Kidera said, wondering aloud.
But the merger of Filipino sisig with the Mexican American comfort food staple of the burrito is also a story of geography. After all, culinary fusion is largely driven by migration: The spit-grilled lamb cooking method brought by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico led to al pastor; laborers of different ethnicities in the sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii influenced what we now know as the Hawaiian plate lunch.
In California, Mexican and Filipino communities have long shared a unique proximity to each other, not only by virtue of a shared geographic location, but through shared struggles. Both have served as the backbone of California’s agricultural industry, both have fought as activists and organizers across the state, and both have experienced the injurious legacies of Spanish colonization.
That proximity provides access to each other’s food and influences how we see cuisine. It guides the way in which we understand how food exists in not only taste but shape and form. For Filipinos, there is kanin (rice) and ulam (whatever meat-based dish that goes with it), but that proximity and familiarity with the particular style of burritos born in San Francisco’s Mission District sees the tortilla as a natural container for all of it.
In this way, Señor Sisig’s newest location inside a transit hub—a crossroads for travelers moving into and out of the international city of San Francisco—makes perfect sense.
“We fit right in,” Kidera said.
While Señor Sisig’s popularity has served to shine a spotlight on Filipino food in the Bay Area, it has also been subject to criticism from within the Filipino community. Even some family members have questioned the authenticity of taking a traditional Filipino dish and wrapping it up in a tortilla alongside beans and salsa.
“It took time for our audience to understand what we were creating when we took traditional sisig and used other parts and proteins and served it in non-traditional ways,” Kidera said.
Then again, what is considered “traditional” is always in flux—especially for groups living in diaspora. Culinary currents have a way of bending toward the familiar and accommodating elements that are easily accessible.
As a native of San Francisco and Daly City, Kidera said that the Mission District occupies a special place in his heart. It’s where he developed a love for food and where Señor Sisig opened its first brick-and-mortar location. And it was through the lens of that first brick-and-mortar storefront that Kidera and the rest of the team saw the possibilities for what Señor Sisig could ultimately be.
In contrast to the food trucks, where the portability of dishes is key, Kidera said he and Payumo began thinking about how they could use their brand to make sisig a communal eating experience. In that spirit, they aim to expand their menu to include offerings that are meant to be shared around the table.
That’s not to say they have plans to make Señor Sisig into some kind of high-concept tapas joint. At heart, Kidera said, they are a street food brand. But unlike the American tradition of street food being a thing for busy workers to scarf down on their fleeting lunch breaks or busy travelers to eat on the go, they hope that the people who come through their newest location at the Ferry Building take the time to sit down and tell each other stories while they enjoy the tasty collision of Filipino, Mexican and American cuisine.