Tom Cunanan gained national praise and lines down the block for his modern take on Filipino cooking at Bad Saint in Columbia Heights. Since parting ways with the restaurant during the pandemic, he’s been serving up Filipino-style burgers and fried chicken alongside fellow chef Paolo Dungca at Pogiboy, inside the Block food hall in downtown DC. It’s a big change, so we caught up with him to see how it’s going.
How did you end up at the Block?
Last October, my brother Eugene brought me to the Block in DC. He knew the owner, Arturo [Mei]. He was like, “Hey, man, what are you doing right now? Are you looking to do a pop-up here?” He showed me the kitchen. My brother was like, “You should just do it. You could do something really fun.” A couple months later, my brother passed away. Arturo and I got pretty close because he was close to my brother. He went to his funeral. Just a few days later, he reached out to me again and he was like, “What do you think of doing something at the Block?” I was kind of going through a struggle, and I was like, “Yeah, I need to keep my mind busy.”
How did you come up with the concept for Pogiboy?
Paolo and I were thinking of stuff we liked when we were kids. I grew up around Hot Shoppes, Bob’s Big Boy. I worked at Popeyes. Paolo grew up in the Philippines, where he ate at [fast-food chain] Jollibee. That was his everything. He and his family, it’s where they go to celebrate every birthday, anniversary. We wanted to make it Filipino, obviously, so it was a bunch of his ideas and my ideas combined.
What appealed to you about being in a food hall?
The big room. Bad Saint was just a shoebox. I was able to finally see my friends and family. For the first time, they can just come in.
How does the food-hall kitchen compare to the tiny kitchen at Bad Saint?
Oh, man. We have a prep area. We have two walk-ins, ten reach-in fridges. I have ten to 13 people. I call Pogiboy my work-cation. I don’t wear a chef coat. I’ve just been wearing flip-flops and shorts and my aloha shirt. My mise en place is a stapler and to-go bags.
What have been the challenges in adjusting from a more high-end restaurant?
Trying to be in control of everything —the all-seeing eye. The kitchen is so massive, I can’t even keep up with everything going on with five to six people behind me. But I’ve learned how to let go—for now.
What are your future plans for Pogiboy?
We want to open a couple more locations, possibly one in Annandale. We’re thinking about doing an Ameri-pino barbecue concept, where we do American barbecue and mix it with Filipino barbecue. You’ll have your brisket. You’ll have your street chicken. We’re going to probably just call it Pogi-Q.
Other Star Chefs You’ll Find at Area Food Halls
The chef/restaurateur behind Maketto and ABC Pony focuses on dumplings, noodle bowls, and Chinese barbecue at pan-Asian Yoko & Kota inside the Roost.
The chef at Elle in Mount Pleasant will oversee the menu at Tigerella, an all-day cafe coming to Western Market this fall.
Though he’s known for traditional plates at Sushi Taro, Yamazaki creates sushi burritos and deconstructed rolls for Roll’d Sushi in Ballston Quarter.
The longtime pastry chef dabbles in both Detroit-style pizzas and Tex-Mex on the food-hall-style menu at Social Beast in Glover Park.
Tien has bounced around the last couple of years (from Himitsu to Emilie’s to the modern Vietnamese Moon Rabbit). One constant: Hot Lola’s, his Szechuan-meets-Nashville hot-fried-chicken-sandwich spot in Ballston Quarter.
Juan Manuel Barrientos
The Colombian chef earned a Michelin star for his modernist Latin tasting menu at El Cielo inside La Cosecha.
This article appears in the July 2021 issue of Washingtonian.