Jen Balisi, an American-Filipino food influencer who has called Hong Kong home for six years, is making waves in the city's F&B scene with her modern Filipino restaurant, Barkada.
Inspired by her deep appreciation for her Filipino heritage and the lack of Filipino dining options in Hong Kong, Balisi embarked on a mission to promote Filipino food and culture. “Even though I grew up in the States, I've always been really proud to be Filipino. There were a lot of restaurants in New York that celebrated Filipino culture and food in more trendy, modern spaces. But when I came to Hong Kong six years ago, not only did they not have those kind of hip, modern Filipino restaurants, there were very few Filipino eateries to begin with. That surprised me since Filipinos are actually the highest ethnic minority group here,” said Balisi.
Balisi, known for her popular Instagram account @indulgenteats, initially started by sharing her love for food and Filipino cuisine through social media. However, during the Covid pandemic, she took her passion further by writing a cookbook and organising pop-up events where she introduced Filipino dishes to enthusiastic customers. As her pop-ups gained media attention, Balisi caught the eye of Singular Concepts, the restaurant group associated with Barkada, who approached her with an offer to open a restaurant. It was a serendipitous moment as Balisi had already reserved the Instagram handle with the name Barkada, envisioning it as the perfect name for her future endeavours.
The name Barkada translates to a group of close friends in Tagalog. It encompasses the essence of community, camaraderie and loyalty, what you call your ride-or-dies. Balisi had long envisioned using this name to establish a business that would inspire a sense of belonging. “Years ago, I stumbled upon a place that had opened up in Washington DC in the States called Barkada, but it was a wine bar run by four white guys. It had absolutely not a single thing to do with Filipino culture or cuisine. I was a bit offended by that. I thought it was a great name for a business. It just immediately evokes this feeling of belonging.” Determined to give the name its rightful purpose, Balisi secured the Instagram handle @barkada.hk, waiting for the perfect opportunity to manifest her vision.
Initially planning to host food pop-ups under the Barkada name, her aspirations took a significant leap when Singular Concepts approached her with the idea of opening a restaurant. Barkada was the obvious name choice for the establishment, symbolising a gathering place for friends to enjoy good food as well as each other's company.
Partnering with Singular Concepts, Balisi expressed her desire to infuse Filipino culture into the design. Initially considering a casual atmosphere, they decided to pivot towards a refined and polished ambiance, aligning with the flagship ground floor space of the FOCO building in Central. The design features a dominant teal colour scheme reminiscent of the Philippines islands and sea. Hanging plants and wooden elements are incorporated to enhance the tropical vibes. A touch of elegance is added with a marble countertop, while materials such as rattan and woven fabrics reflect the rich heritage of Philippine culture. Upon entering, guests are greeted with a bright yellow sign against a backdrop of dark blue palm print wallpaper, representing the vibrant colours of the Philippine flag.
“We wanted it to feel tropical, but I also wanted a bit of that urban edge because we are in Hong Kong, located en route to LKF and Soho. In the end, we decided to incorporate this edge through the artwork.” Balisi researched Filipino street art that captured the desired tropical aesthetic while maintaining an urban edge. She sought out different Filipino artists through commissions or recommendations from her social media followers.
A notable decor here is the Red Horse (an iconic Filipino beer) plaque displayed on the wall, a unique symbol of Filipino culture. Balisi proudly explained, "This plaque was custom-made for us by Red Horse because we are the only place that offers Red Horse on tap. We wanted people walking down the street to notice and think – hey, they have Red Horse here, let's go!”
Balisi wanted to create a warm and friendly environment that emanates the hospitality that Filipinos are so well known for. To achieve this, she carefully chose ergonomic chairs with plush cushioning for guests to relax and settle into. The space's open arrangement also contributed to this laid back atmosphere. "Our doors are completely open, and we have a seating arrangement where half of the diners are indoors, half of the diners are outdoors," Balisi explained. "We're also right on a main thoroughfare where everyone is walking up and down the street, right underneath the escalator. So you kind of look in and you see a vibe. You see all the people in here and think, what's happening?"
Another inviting feature of the restaurant is its exterior signage showcasing the Barkada name, which acts as a beacon for passersby and a delightful surpise for people who recognise the word in Tagalog. "There's been a lot of Filipino tourists now that the borders are open. They come to Central, start walking around and when they see us, they're like, whoa, what? They actually take pictures with the restaurant! I think they're surprised to find a Filipino restaurant in such a busy area."
Above the kitchen, a sign that reads kain na (let's eat in Tagalog) combines iconic neon elements from Hong Kong with a phrase frequently used by Filipino families to encourage each other to eat. It serves as a fitting reminder of the mission of Barkada to create a space where people can come together, experience Filipino flavours, and feel a sense of home.
“I really wanted this place to be a source of pride for Filipinos,” expressed Balisi. “I wanted this to be a space where you can bring your barkada, whether they are Filipino or not, and experience things that may evoke a sense of home while being completely new."
While Barkada differentiates itself from conventional Filipino establishments in terms of its design and culinary creations, Balisi firmly asserts that it doesn't want to rival with local counterparts. Rather, Barkada was envisioned as a gateway to Filipino food and culture in Hong Kong. “I always tell people, if you want the traditional food, go to our friends at Dara, go to Bedana's. It's not a competition for us.”
Jen Balisi's venture into opening a contemporary Filipino restaurant in Hong Kong stands as a testament to her passion for Filipino gastronomy and the richness of Filipino culture. With its captivating ambiance, inviting decor and mouthwatering culinary creations, Barkada has become a popular gathering place for friends and a source of Filipino pride in Hong Kong.
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