As I eyed the rainbow of Fruity Pebbles floating on top of purple almond milk, I wondered if Likha's chefs might have gone too far with their halo-halo.
Likha, a pop-up inside the three-month-old Emeryville sports bar Hometown Heroes, aims to serve refined yet traditional Filipino dishes. Filipino-American chefs Jan Dela Paz and Bobby Punla met while working at Ramen Shop and bring their classically trained, fine dining backgrounds to Likha's dishes.
I asked Punla about his purple invention. He spoke nostalgically about halo-halo, the Filipino dessert, how you mix all the ingredients together — including a scoop of ube (purple yam) ice cream and evaporated milk — until the liquid turns purple. So, when he decided to create his own halo-halo, he started with his own version of purple milk, using spreadable ube jam and almond milk — because that's what he drinks these days — and opting for a more seasonal ice cream flavor of strawberry. He kept the flan — house-made, of course — but swapped tinned jackfruit for fresh nectarines, canned beans for freshly cooked ones, and store-bought jellies for coconut water thickened up with agar agar (a jelly-like substance made from red algae). A final flourish: Fruity Pebbles, "because I am a believer in rainbow sprinkles," Punla said.
Pebbles aside, Punla's halo-halo reflects the overall approach of Likha's menu: He and Dela Paz prepare traditional Filipino dishes — there's no dramatic modernizing or reinterpreting — but with deviations here and there when it makes sense. Instead of merely frying an egg to top the sisig, they sous vide perfectly molten eggs. And rather than thicken up sauces with a cornstarch swirl, they let them reduce naturally and develop more nuance. Across the board, they focus on sourcing top-notch ingredients.
It's an exciting take on Filipino food, which still hasn't found a mainstream audience in the East Bay. Most Filipino restaurants in the United States are bare-bones, steam-table operations, although that's changing. One of the country's most acclaimed restaurants right now is Bad Saint, an ambitious Filipino restaurant in Washington, D.C. And in the East Bay, another contemporary Filipino restaurant is on its way; FOB Kitchen is scheduled to open in the former Juhu Beach Club space in September.
At Likha, my favorite dishes offered subtle twists on traditional fare. I loved the riff on laing, which is typically made with taro leaves but here consists of Chinese broccoli braised in coconut milk with shallots and pickled chilies. It tasted like creamed greens with a tropical flair, and I will order it again anytime I return. The green papaya salad impressed as well, with the requisite funk provided by tamarind instead of fish sauce to make it vegan, plus a welcomed hit of lime juice and rice vinegar. A little bit of sesame oil mellowed out the dressing for this refreshing, crunchy, tangy salad, dressed up with perfectly ripe nectarines, batons of jicama, and cilantro, fried shallots, and peanuts.
Likha's versions of lumpia, chicken adobo, and sisig — likely the three most widely known Filipino dishes — all delivered as well. Given the bar setting, the slender lumpia are justifiably popular, elevated with Niman Ranch pork and served with two dipping sauces. The chicken was even better — lovingly braised and tender and lacquered in soy sauce. The blistered cherry tomatoes on the side — an unexpected touch — brought welcomed bursts of umami, though the Chinese broccoli could have used some salt. The pork belly sisig, which arrived sizzling on a cast iron pan, was deliciously heavy on soy sauce but lacked the crispiness and complex sourness you can get elsewhere. The sous vide egg, however, made it a winner.
I cared less for the kare-kare, a Filipino peanut-oxtail stew sometimes made with tripe. Swapping oxtails for beef short-rib felt like a logical choice given the setting, and adding crispy fried tripe on top was pure genius. But the short rib lacked beefy unctuousness, the shrimp paste was undetectable, and the eggplant and bok choy on the side were limp and bland. While the peanut sauce was good, the kare-kare promised more complexity than that, but failed to deliver. On the flip side, the ginataan rice bowl offered an unexpectedly strong vegan option, with squash, carrots, and green beans stewed in coconut milk and finished with fried tofu. It gets an extra lift of umami from a tare — a liquid seasoning technique the chefs picked up from Ramen Shop — made from soy sauce infused with kombu and dried mushrooms.
It's impressive what Dela Paz and Punla can churn out of their tiny kitchen — just six burners, one oven, one deep fryer, and "the smallest, skinniest grill ever," according to Punla. "Our dishwasher length is bigger than the kitchen setup." It's worth remembering that this is a pop-up, and even though Likha operates daily, it faces similar limitations as other pop-ups. That fact can make you appreciate the speedy service even more — even though you have to fetch your own water cups — as well as how Dela Paz and Punla manage to deliver and explain every dish to every table. (Likha has a one-year agreement with Hometown Heroes, until around May 2019, and hopes to open a brick-and-mortar after that.)
Similarly, it's worth remembering that Dela Paz and Punla do not control the environment. Hometown Heroes is a bumpin', rollicking sports bar. There might be a huge birthday party taking over the entire outdoor patio with balloons, hip-hop, and festive screaming. There might be an important game on the TVs, making it impossible to get an indoor seat on a cold day. You just have to roll with it.
Despite the bar setting, Likha's dishes feel remarkably light and healthy — much more so than those at most Filipino restaurants, with smaller portions and higher prices to match. That combination of factors is either going to appeal to you or dissuade you in concept alone. And while I appreciate Likha's fresh perspective, I can't endorse the halo-halo. The almond milk made the dessert feel like watery slush compared to its traditional version, which balances decadent and refreshing qualities. While the flan and coconut jellies were on point, the whole collection lacked substance. I left thinking that not every tradition needs to be refined but confident that Likha will cement its path in time.