To stand out in the rising culinary metropolis that is the DC area and have staying power, you should be prepared to offer up something different from the crowded pack of gems. That is exactly how Jo-Jo Valenzuela approached serving up mouthwatering Filipino food at sports bar The Game in Adams Morgan, and the menu at their new upstairs getaway Tiki on 18th.
After all, one can go to any sports bar in the District and get a beer and watch the game. But where can you find one that also serves up meticulously prepared sizzling sisig – a popular Filipino dish of grilled pig’s ears with crispy pork belly – or lumpiang shanghai, heavenly pork and mushroom spring rolls with a sweet mango chili sauce?
“The funniest thing I’ve ever heard was when somebody looked at the menu and then just asked me, ‘What is this?’” Valenzuela says of The Game’s menu. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m Filipino.’ And the individual said, ‘Oh, so you’re a Filipino bar?’ And I said, ‘No, we are a sports bar. The cook just happens to be Filipino.’”
Valenzuela is well-known in the area for his expert mixology skills, with previous stints at Brine in Mosaic and AdMo’s Jack Rose Dining Saloon. But, The Game and now Tiki on 18th take Valenzuela from overseeing the bar to also being in the kitchen.
“If you’re passionate about making good drinks, cooking is a big part of mixology and it basically evolved into that,” he says. “Anyone can make wings, burgers or nachos and buy the best ingredients, and it’ll be good. But I grew up in the Philippines and know Filipino food, and that’s my passion. So, if I’m doing a sports bar, I’m going to do the food I’m comfortable with.”
A packed crowd on a recent college football Saturday certainly suggests customers are as equally comfortable with Valenzuela’s food.
“We have one customer that will sit in an hour’s worth of traffic just to come have the sisig,” Valenzuela says of the dish, which involves quite the tedious but worthwhile preparation process. “That’s pretty amazing.”
Along with the sisig, which Valenzuela says The Game has become known for, other dishes he recommends are the gambas al ajillo – shrimp with garlic chili oil and lemon served with crusty ciabatta – or the rice bowls, especially the beef pares with braised beef brisket and garlic fried rice.
For drinks, Valenzuela’s 2015 DC Rickey Competition-winning rizal is on the menu, as is a creative riff on the old fashioned. I Love My BBC (Bacon, Bourbon, Chocolate) combines bacon fat-washed Bulleit Bourbon, orange-maple syrup and chocolate bitters for a fresh take on the classic cocktail.
Upon venturing up the stairway from The Game to the second-floor Tiki on 18th, which opened this July, the vibe immediately changes to an island green paradise. Bright, palm-printed paper covers the walls of the intimate space, with gigantic wicker-patterned chandeliers and an eye-catching tiki bar to complete the tropical vibe. Guests can venture out to the Luau Patio, accented by the “Let’s Tiki, Baby” neon sign.
And while the DC area is no stranger to tiki bars – with the likes of Coconut Club near Union Market and Tiki TNT at The Wharf opening recently – the combination of talent behind the cocktails and bites at Tiki on 18th is giving it some significant advantage. Valenzuela’s partners at the tropical spot include Jonathan Peterson, co-founder of Rum Day DC, and former Service Bar bartender Saab Harrison.
“I’ve had cocktails in the area and in Chicago and New York, and the drinks we have up here are some of the best,” Valenzuela says. “We are extremely careful with how we do things upstairs.”
Cocktail favorites include the Missionary’s Downfall, a made-to-order, frothy, mint-and-fruit concoction that comes in a decorative white-and-green cup, topped with colorful fresh mint. The menu playfully describes the drink as “a pineapple, mint, peach jacuzzi in a blender.”
Valenzuela recommends adding the 1933 Mai Tai to your tasting list as well. The original recipe uses Jamaican rum, Demerara rum, lime and orgeat, creating the perfect flavor combination with a colorful pink-and-yellow tone. Another favorite is the Dons Mix Paloma. Described as “on a Mexican beach with earnest,” the tequila, lime, grapefruit and soda cocktail with a hint of cinnamon is served in a tall tiki cup.
To complement the cocktails, Valenzuela offers a tasty menu at Tiki on 18th of “easy bites” including pulled pork tacos, fatty braised beef tostada, grilled skewers and Mexican street corn. Filipino flavors still inspire the menu upstairs, with BBQ glaze marinade on the pork belly kebabs and a heavenly seasoning on the beef skewers. On Sundays, guests can enjoy all-day brunch from 12-8 p.m. with offerings including avocado toast with grilled pork belly, enchiladas with eggs and tostadas with kālua pork.
In the vast array of DC restaurant concepts, Filipino food in a sports bar on one floor and a tiki bar with tacos and kebabs on another is certainly a unique setup. But Valenzuela laments that if you want to be successful in this business, you truly need to find a niche – and you need to be in it for the right reasons.
“All the big places are closing and that’s really sad, but that just means that everyone needs to step their game up. You have to love what you are doing, otherwise there is no point in doing it.”
Valenzuela says he is hoping to keep the foot traffic flowing through The Game as various sports seasons start getting underway this fall, with plenty of televisions and game-day specials to come. Meanwhile at Tiki on 18th, as the temperature in the District begins to cool down, the tropical escape is sure to keep everyone warm.