The windshield wipers on my car were streaking against the glass on a rainy day in December. I was on my way to Rene-Rose Island Cuisine in Sunnyvale. I pulled into a small parking lot and took a quick glance inside. It looked clean.
Opening the door, Rene welcomed me from behind a warmly lit food counter. “Hello!” she crooned, with a sweet voice that reminded me of my grandmother.
“I’m Kristine, I’m here for the interview.”
“Oh!!!” she exclaimed, and quickly removed her apron. She crossed over to a side door and entered the dining room. A petite woman, she had smart, black-framed spectacles on and a sassy haircut. She had a classically beautiful physique.
She led me to one of the bamboo-wood tables to talk about Rene-Rose Island Cuisine, a rare find in Sunnyvale. The Filipino restaurant had previously been located in Mountain View on Castro Street but had moved to Sunnyvale in the past 8 years.
K: Thanks for lending me your time to talk about your food. Are you also the chef?
Rene: I’m the one preparing everything. But I have helpers for chopping. We buy fruits and vegetables everyday.
Q: Where did you learn how to cook?
Rene: When I was here in 1982, everywhere [I went to eat Filipino food], the taste was not good for me. I used to be a cosmetologist. I have a license here. My husband quit his job and I was thinking we’d buy a restaurant, my husband could take care of it and I would continue my haircutting. But no, you cannot turn around when you have a restaurant, at least if you’re concerned about it.
Q: Do you find that it’s mostly Filipinos that come in, or other nationalities?
It’s almost international. On Castro, everybody wanted to taste, they want to try. If they tasted it, they’d come back with a friend. When I stopped 1 year and came back, everyone was looking for me. My name before was Rene Rose Philippine Cuisine, but my neighbors that I had moved in next to had all kinds of food – Vietnamese, Chinese, American, Philippine, so we just put Rene Rose Island Cuisine.
My customers are every race — White, Black, Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Burmese. I know because I’ve asked them. They say, “your food is close to our food,” or “that’s my grandma’s cooking, but she’s not Filipino!”
In Mountain View people were coming and saying, “we want to try something different,” or “we came here because we want to taste Filipino food.”
Q: Do they try a lot of different dishes?
Rene: Everything. I have a Hungarian customer who eats dinuguan, the chocolate meat. Every time he comes, he brings a friend, like his wife, everything. And he is the one explaining. I would say, “Do you know that it’s pork blood in here?” And he would say, “It’s okay, we just want to try it.”
There was also a Japanese man who tried it. Now, every time that he comes here, he orders that with the pinakbet. There are some Filipinos who look at him eating when they come in.
They like everything. Beef and potato – the mechado, even my sinigang (tamarind broth), because I make it with a pork neck bone. It’s sour. They know how to pick the meat from the bone. I have one customer, every time he is in the area, he is very happy to eat here because of the sinigang.
Now, it’s more international than Filipino. That’s why I say that Filipinos have the international taste. In the Philippines we have Chinese, Spanish, American [influences]. We know how to cook everything. Not just the Filipino taste. All the food I’m preparing here we call the “old passion taste.” The cooking now there is a pact, like this or like that, but I just cook the original taste.
Sometimes I change the ingredients though. For example, I make the taste of the menudo. The menudo in the Philippines is with liver. In Mexico it’s with tripe. But not everybody likes liver or tripe. So I just use pork, so everybody likes it.
Q: Which dishes stand out?
Rene: It’s easy for most to say, “I like adobo, pork adobo or chicken adobo.” Chicken and pork are the rivals, it’s always adobo, adobo. They still ask for adobo.
Q: Do you make different dishes every single day? How does your menu change?
Rene: I have certain everyday things – pork adobo, chicken adobo, bisteak (marinated beef with rings of onion), lechon kawali (deep fried pork belly). I don’t remove that. But I make different vegetables – pinakbet, mongo beans, etc.
Q: What part of the Philippines you’re from?
Rene: We’re from Luzon. We came here in my 30s.
Q: How would you describe Filipino food?
Rene: I know Filipino food is not just for Filipino tastes. It has international taste you know. We get the Chinese, the Spanish, the Japanese. All nations are there already. Now more Americans are going to the Philippines so it’s changing.
[Husband comes in:]
Rene’s Husband: When we got the restaurant, we had to lure customers. We had to say we were the best Filipino restaurant here. They were amazed that I opened a restaurant on Castro.
Many people don’t know Filipino food. They only know Chinese, Mexican, American food. Filipino food is out of the topic. They asked us why we put a Filipino restaurant there on Castro, I told them I’m a gambler.
Everyone started to patronize our place. The Philippines was colonized by the Spanish, the American, the Japanese…the Chinese were there too but they didn’t colonize; they just traded with us. That’s how we got the Lumpia Shanghai. From the Spaniards, we got the Menudo, Mechado. Then after that, the Japanese, we got the Ukoys.
But Filipinos beat at their own pace. They ask me, who is the best cook in the world? Maybe it’s the Filipino, because he knows all food.
What do you think is the future of Filipino food?
Rene’s Husband: Now, more people are learning. I tell them, Filipinos are like the wandering Jews now. All over the world, Filipinos are there. Even in different, troublesome countries, they’re there. The government cannot give them jobs so they go to different places because they are all professionals. Professionals, because parents — whether rich or poor, they stress education on their kids because that’s the only thing they can give.
Some more pictures from my visit:
After the interview, Rene made me a plate with all of Rene-Rose’s delights: the mechado, pancit, sinigang, and a heaping order of crunchy lumpia shanghais that were freshly bronzed. I also purchased a leche flan, out of curiosity, and it was one of the best I’ve ever had. Creamy, without being eggy, and caramel flavors were rich and alive. I will be going back to Rene-Rose, not just for the food, but for the hospitality, which Rene so abundantly provides.