UNEXPECTED The tocino marries papaya, rice and an egg. Photograph by Kristine Bautista

The name makes it sound like a yogurt place. But Toppings Tree in Santa Clara is one of a handful of Filipino restaurants that have sprung up in the South Bay. Curiously, Filipino food makes up a mere 1 percent of California’s restaurant industry, although Filipinos are the second-highest Asian population in the country. This lack of Filipino restaurants remains a mystery. Some say that Filipinos prefer to eat at home. Others speculate that Filipinos have yet to come up with the secret to marketing their food to Americans. Yet, with popular food critic Andrew Zimmern calling Filipino food “the next big thing” last July, interest in this elusive cuisine appears to be on the rise.

Toppings Tree in Santa Clara is one Filipino restaurant on the forefront of this venture. It is part of a slew of newer Filipino restaurants that are starting to take hold. Many of these restaurants differ from the traditional turo-turo (literally, “point, point”) restaurants, in which food is prepared ahead of time and sits in steam baths for customers to choose from. These new-generation restaurants are smartly decorated, offer descriptive menus and produce dishes that are aesthetically pleasing—a purported detriment of many Filipino dishes.

One can get a sense of a nation’s history through its food. Nowhere is this more evident than with Filipino food. Toppings Tree’s menu is a conflation of Philippine and Chinese dishes (chop suey, $7.95) with some Spanish (grilled tapa, $7.95) flavoring notes as well. It pays homage to the trade and colonization influences that altered the Philippine way of eating for over 400 years.

For an appetizer, we opted for the chicharon bulaklak ($7.95). “Chicharon” is a Spanish word that refers to a dish with bronzed rinds. Here, the pork ruffles are served with a zesty vinegar jalape–o sauce. Very good, but because it is offal calls for a level of adventurousness. The tocino ($6.95/$10.95) served with pickled green papaya, steaming rice and an over-easy egg, is one of those unexpected dishes that opens one’s taste buds. The meat is cured for several days and traditionally pan fried, although Toppings grills theirs. Reddish in color and glazed in appearance, it has a smoky and caramelized richness.

I was curious about the beef pares, one of the restaurant’s newest dishes and a common street food. Pares means “pair,” because the seasoned beef is usually paired with garlic fried rice and soup. The brisket was slow-cooked and topped with heaps of toasted garlic and green onions. The soup and rice were nice afterthoughts against the robust backdrop of the meat. There is truly something for everyone here, from the foodies to traditionalists looking for the tastes of home. The flavors are exciting, alluring and largely unexplored.

Toppings Tree
1171 Homestead Road, Santa Clara; 408.615.1804