AJ’s BBQ & Cafe is a turo turo, a quick service restaurant consisting of steam tables filled with delicious home-style Filipino cooking. This turo turo was passed down to Kevin Guevarra by his family and re-opened as AJ’s BBQ & Cafe, named after his son, a couple years ago. And from what I can see he is definitely doing the family proud.
This place starts out the day by serving breakfast. Kevin makes a killer cup of coffee and sells boba teas with flavors like taro and Thai iced tea. Other morning items include donuts, breakfast burritos and more traditional Filipino fare like house-made longsilog – pork and garlic breakfast sausages served with garlic rice and fried egg. There’s a steady stream of passerby’s who come through to grab a quick breakfast on their way to work.
You can find Kevin most days behind the counter cooking and chatting it up with his regulars. He’s clearly passionate about what he does and it shows. He’s not just running a business he is back there doing what he loves – cooking the foods he grew up on and making everyone feel at home. Out of all of the Filipino restaurants I’ve been to this place is like a primer on the cuisine. He was serving just about every dish I had read about and was more than happy to explain each one to me.
His lumpia shanghai are hand rolled and made with ground pork, vegetables and black pepper. He also makes a mean Sinagang consisting of pork shoulder, bok choy, green beans, ginger, eggplant, tamarind, soy sauce and fish sauce. The chicken adobo he admits is an Americanized version made simply with soy, sweet vinegar, garlic, onion and black pepper. The Laing could give the best steak houses in the city a run for their money. It’s basically creamed spinach, but not just any creamed spinach. It’s cooked with minced pork, coconut milk, ginger, fish sauce, onion and garlic. OMG.
The chicken afritada consists of chicken legs braised in tomato, chicken broth, potato, carrot, yellow onion, celery and garlic. Pancit, I learned, is a noodle dish traditionally eaten at birthday parties. The long noodles represent long life. Kevin uses rice stick noodles for his version and cooks them down in beef broth until the broth has completely reduced. Then garlic, scallion and cabbage are tossed in which are lightly steamed by the hot noodles.
You would think it couldn’t get any better than that but it does. AJ’s is known for their BBQ chicken and pork skewers. Nice fatty pieces with the skin left lends a nice crispy texture. The skewers are marinated overnight with soy, sugar and surprisingly 7-up, drained, cooked on flat top grill, taken off to rest and then grilled one again over an open fire. The result are sticks of smoky, sweet and succulent chunks of meat.
Kevin says “every Filipino restaurant is different”. Filipino cuisine means “home cooking passed down from family” to him. He comes from Pampanga where it is known for its good cooks. He is currently messing around with a lumpia burger to put on the menu. He envisions a patty made of lumpia filling topped with a special sauce that he is still dreaming up. If it’s anything like the rest of his food I will be first in line for that.
2275 San Jose ave, San Francisco, CA 94112
Sarah Burchard is the author of The Healthy Locavore, a natural foods chef and experience host whose writing focuses on cooking, holistic health, supporting community and eating locally grown and made foods.