High school. That time of wanting to fit in and be cool, but not so cool that you’re weird. The time when the seed of neurosis is planted, only to bloom later on when you’re drinking too much after work and telling the bartender everything.
I had a friend in high school that was Filipino—she was super smart, funny, and a bank-safe-grade secret keeper. What she wasn’t, though, was proud of her heritage. In retrospect, it’s heartbreaking. She dyed her hair blond, wore green contact lenses, and pretty much did everything she could not to be an “other” in the suburban landscape of TGI Fridays and popped collars. These attempts at assimilation, thankfully, have mostly been relegated to the past and the new Filipino generation is experiencing a cultural (re)awakening led, in part, by restaurants and food trucks.
I really wish that there had been something like Bonifacio in the neighborhood where we grew up.
Recently opened in Grandview, the eatery is a low-key, proud celebration of Filipino food and culture. A spot where the community meets and mingles over a glass of pucker-sour kalamansi and a brunch plate of guava-stuffed French toast. Or winds down at happy hour with some cold Filipino beer and a snack of sizzling pork sisig.
Prior to opening Bonifacio, the owners featured the flavors of home in sandwiches such as chicken adobo at their downtown venture, Red Velvet Café. Eventually, they floated the idea of a brunch and it became an instant hit. It was standing room only at the tiny slice of a spot on Fourth Street. The Filipino community turned out, as did the rest of Columbus, it seemed, and that massive popularity provided the kick-start to a full restaurant.
For those new to the cuisine, servers know the menu and explain, recommend, and encourage exploration. To some degree, most dishes are familiar, but with a twist. For example, the Fried Chicken and Filipino Spaghetti is wonderful entrée into the new-to-many menu. The fried chicken is without breading, yet crispy enough to spout steam when cracked into. Perched atop a spaghetti hill, there is a subtle play of textures: the crispy skin and moist chicken sledding into the silky chewy pasta and chunky sauce. The sauce is made with tomatoes and banana ketchup, which lends it a signature sweetness. Served at birthday parties for children, it’s a fun throwback flavor for adults.
Also taking a spin around the sweet track is the Tociburger, Bonifacio’s entry into the burger races. On appearance alone, it’s a gorgeous dish—the blushing pink of the pickled red onion, the clean white of the fried egg, the sunrise of the yolk—but the flavor is somewhat mysterious. Marinated in tocino (a mixture of brown sugar, soy sauce, garlic, other spices, and some citrus) the ground beef itself takes on this deep maroon hue. So, you’ve got this sweet bit happening in the background, with some umami soy stuff in the foreground, and in between there’s a kiss of sour from the pickles, and the egg-y sauce created by breaking the fried yolk. It’s almost too much of an abundance of flavor. Almost. Pop a beer-battered fry into your mouth for a between-bites break.
Peanut-based Kare Kare is one of the stews on the menu, the other being the tomato-based Kaldereta. The sauce, made pumpkin-orange by the achuete seed, is dense with peanut flavor with, yet again, a shadow of sugar. In this case, the Kare Kare is presented as a beef stew and the large chunks of meat are super tender, the salty meatiness playing big brother to the sweeter sauce. There is bok choy and eggplant in the stew for your veg, as well as these absolutely lovely green beans that were each tied in a knot. A thoughtful surprise that has nothing to do with how the dish tastes, but everything to do with how much the kitchen cares.
With Filipino specialties on the dessert menu, an intriguing cocktail list (including punches for the whole table), and a rotating list of craft beers, Bonifacio could easily become a neighborhood hang. Televisions watch over the bar, and the tables can be pushed together easily for big meals between friends and family. The space is all clean lines, light wood and natural light. It sits on the corner of King and Northwest avenues in Grandview, watching over the intersection.
Last time I was there, I sat at the bar and munched on some skinny fried pork spring rolls. I thought about high school and my friend. We’ve lost touch since and I can’t even find her on facebook. Crazy, right? Wherever she is, I hope she is reveling in this celebration of Filipino food and culture that is popping up around the country. I know I am, thanks to Bonifacio.
Bonifacio is located at 1577 King Ave. For more, visit bonifacio614.com.