Chef Tom Cunanan spent five years leading the tiny kitchen at Bad Saint, the famed Filipino destination in Columbia Heights that got attention from all over the country and earned him a James Beard Award. But after leaving in August, he’s looking beyond the Philippines for his own restaurant.
It’s easy to forget that Cunanan, who shot to fame when Bad Saint opened, has actually been cooking in DC for 21 years. His resume hops around several American and French restaurants. There was Corduroy (his first job at age 17, thanks to the Boys and Girls Club); then the historic Occidental near the White House; then La Chaumiere, the venerable Georgetown bistro. Along the way he made stops at many now-closed dining rooms that were big deals back in their day: Southern fine dining restaurant Vidalia, seafood-focused Hook and DC Coast, and tasting-menu spot PS7’s. When Cunanan finds a restaurant space in DC, he hopes to draw from all of those experiences for his tasting and a la carte menus. He’s currently scouting for a 50 to 60 seat dining room with an open kitchen. “Besides Filipino food,” he says, “I want to cook everything.”
But first, he’s teaming up with another Filipino-American chef, Paolo Dungca, formerly of Kaliwa and Restaurant Eve (and Bad Saint). The duo want to recreate one of their favorite food experiences. At the new Downtown DC location of the Block food hall, the pair will open Pogiboy (“Pogi” translates to “handsome” in Tagalog), hopefully on January 15. It’ll be a straight-up homage to the fast-food restaurant Jollibee, home of Filipino-accented friend chicken, burgers, and spaghetti. “You have to travel to Richmond or Queens or Jersey City for Filipino fast-casual food,” Cunanan says. “We thought, why not make [a Jollibee] here?”
And so, Cunanan and Dungca will sling smash burgers with cane-vinegar-laced special sauce and edam cheese. Fried chicken is marinated in tamarind—which Cunanan says is a big thing in Manila—and served in buckets with colorful shrimp chips. There will be a riff on Outback Steakhouse’s bloomin’ onion, gilded with crab fat. And they’ll do a classic Filipino spaghetti tossed with hot dogs (Cunanan’s version of the dish at Bad Saint was one of the best things this food critic ate back in 2o18).
The very talented Dungca also has plans for a restaurant of his own—he’s teaming up with rum-distiller/cocktail whiz Todd Thrasher. So will the pair keep Pogiboy going once their attention turns to other projects? Cunanan says yes—they’re actually hoping to make it a bigger East Coast thing.
“This is something we’re extremely passionate about,” Cunanan says. “Our culture, our food.”
Pogiboy at the Block, 1110 Vermont Ave., NW.