Bonifacio introduces a new cuisine to many, recalls home for some and encounters some surmountable bumps along the way.
While Bonifacio isn't the first Filipino restaurant to test the Columbus culinary waters, it is the first to set up shop at the right place (an inner-ring suburb) and the right time (now). The Grandview eatery opened in 2016, just as Filipino cuisine was grabbing attention nationwide. On the East Coast, getting a seat at D.C.'s Bad Saint is akin to finding a Tickle Me Elmo under a Christmas tree in 1996. And the West Coast's Jollibee (a fast food joint native to the Philippines) is inching its way east for a total U.S. takeover. Bonifacio owner Krizzia Yanga (of Red Velvet Cafe) took a risk in unabashedly unveiling the cuisine—balut and all—in a full-bar, full-service restaurant, and Central Ohio's dining landscape is better for her decision.
Bonifacio has hits and misses, and Yanga's history of adaptation (like how she eased Pinoy fare onto the Red Velvet menu) shows that she'll keep trying until everything is right. With four different food menus—brunch, lunch, bar food (appetizers) and dinner—as well as monthly kamayan dinners (family-style experiential events), Bonifacio shoulders a tremendous weight. Not only is it the beacon of Filipino cuisine in Columbus (which involves being compared to every Filipino's mother's version of a dish, as well as educating non-Filipinos about the semi-exotic fare), it's also competing in an area dense with food options.
Right now, Bonifacio is trying to do it all. And it appears to be working; the restaurant is frequently filled to capacity. But take away the rush to try something new, and it's clear there's still some room for improvement.
Surprisingly, the dishes that veer from the traditional truly stand out on the menu. Non-Filipino guests should visit at least twice. Once, as students—try the dishes that define the cuisine—and again as diners, ordering the signature dishes that make Bonifacio shine.
Colored lighting, textured wood finishes and ceiling pendants help to disguise the building's origins as a one-time Tim Horton's. And while there's a cozy ambience, there are a few design flaws (a bar too high for eating, a restroom door that opens into the waiting area) that could be ironed out for a smoother experience.
Bonifacio's staff is attentive and eager to please and educate. They're put to the test—and excel—during monthly kamayan dinners. It takes planning and skill to simultaneously paddle a mountain of white rice at every table with each of the 15 courses offered during the special dinners.
The only marked issues with service come from behind the bar. While Bonifacio serves cocktails as unique as its food, drinks—both alcoholic and not—come out consistently slow, and sometimes after the food is served. Good thing they're interesting and tasty. The Mayon Volcano ($7) is beautifully displayed, has floral undertones and, according to one dining companion, “tastes like magic.” And the Kalamansi-Honey Fizz ($6) showcases the sweet citrus juice integral to Filipino cuisine in a majestic drink topped with egg whites and cream.
Most of the bar food menu items can double as appetizers. The lumpiang Shanghai ($8)—a Filipino staple—is a pair (not enough for the price) of thin, fried pork spring rolls alongside a sweet dipping sauce.
The sisig ($12) provides a solid layer of flavorful pork topped with an egg served atop a cast iron plate: in short, breakfast at dinner. Bonifacio's version is light on the vinegar meant to complete the flavor profile of the dish. A few squirts of lime juice can remedy it, but as a whole the dish is inconsistent with each bite.
The kare-kare fries ($12), however, are a must-have. Beer-battered french fries in a Filipino restaurant may not be a natural choice, but as Bonifacio shows over and over again, fresh takes on traditional dishes showcase kitchen creativity. The crispy fries are topped with a peanut gravy, small cubes of beef, achara (a slaw mix that appears frequently in Bonifacio's dishes) and pickled red onions, creating a version of poutine that makes me eager to see what other things Bonifacio can do if given the time to brainstorm.
The dinner menu is a mix of traditional and signature dishes, each served with varying degrees of authenticity. The chicken adobo ($12)—the Philippines' national dish—features two legs and a thigh cooked in a classic marinade of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves and black peppercorns, served alongside rice and achara. While Bonifacio doesn't mess with the recipe—and shouldn't with a staple dish—both times I had it, the dish begged for more vinegar.
Bonifacio deploys creative plating with its kare-kare ($12), an eggplant- and peanut-based stew. Each ingredient is cooked separately and artfully assembled in a shallow bowl. A green bean tied in a knot sits alongside a small spoon with bagoong—a condiment of salted, fermented shrimp meant to season the dish.
Easily one of the best items on the menu, the Tociburger ($14) combines tocino—a sweet cured pork often served at breakfast—with an all-American burger, creating a sweet, savory, super-juicy sandwich that challenges the palate in a good way.
If fried chicken and Filipino spaghetti ($12) seem odd, chances are you've never been to Jollibee. Bonifacio's nod to the Philippines' version of McDonald's is a gateway dish for the apprehensive. Three pieces of perfectly fine fried chicken (all legs) perch atop a mountain of spaghetti. The sweet, ground beef-laden pasta sauce has a flavor like SpaghettiOs and features Jufran, a brand of banana ketchup made in the Philippines.
The pancit bihon ($12), a pile of rice noodles, brightly colored vegetables and unevenly distributed meats of varying sizes, is underwhelming. Skip it and save room for dessert.
The quintessential Filipino dessert halo-halo ($10) consists of shaved ice and evaporated milk topped with malty ube ice cream (a bright purple yam), jackfruit, two types of sweet beans, nada de coco (chewy, Jello-like red and green cubes) and leche flan (an egg-based custard and nod to the cuisine's Spanish heritage). While the texture of the shaved ice could be finer (and the glass holding this spectacle a little larger), the dessert provides both familiarity to some and safe culinary exploration to others.
In short, that's what Bonifacio is: a taste of home for some and, for others, a place to learn. With a little focus, Bonifacio has the capability to be a leader in the nationwide race to propel the cuisine.