This San Diego Chef Is Transforming a Local Steakhouse with Upscale Filipino Fare

Executive chef Tara Monsod draws diners from across Southern California to Animae—and not just because it’s San Diego’s only Wagyu steakhouse.

Animae
Photo by James Tran, courtesy of Animae

With a statewide population nearing 1.5 million, Filipinos represent the largest Asian American community in California, with 43% of all Filipino Americans calling the Golden State home. From delectable dessert shops in the Bay Area to Historic Filipinotown in LA, plus a wealth of delicious Filipino-owned eateries right here in San Diego, we have plenty of options for digging into this cuisine that’s influenced by early agricultural trading with China and India, and colonial influences from the U.S. and Spain.

What’s harder to find are upscale, fine-dining restaurants that feature elevated Filipino staples reinterpreted by chefs who belong to the community. Thankfully that’s beginning to change, in large part thanks to Tara Monsod, the young Filipino chef who took the helm at San Diego’s Animae in March 2021.

Animae opened in October 2019, positioning itself as San Diego’s only Wagyu steakhouse centered around a coal-fired oven and Japanese robata grill, but it wasn't until Monsod rose from executive sous chef to executive chef that an Asian American chef was leading the kitchen. With fine-dining experience that includes stints at Richard Blais' Juniper & Ivy and Nancy Silverton's Mozza, Monsod infused elements of Filipino cuisine throughout the menu, from Wagyu Lumpia with pear sawsawan (dipping sauce) to her famous Short Rib Kare Kare, a hearty stew-like dish served with a thick peanut-based sauce that has a touch of bagoong, fermented shrimp paste.

Diners quickly responded that they could taste the love and soul in Monsod's food, and proud Filipino families now make up much of the dining room on any given night, with many driving from as far as Los Angeles to taste familiar flavors from home presented in an entirely new way. The restaurant’s setting—romantic with warm lighting, pops of plant life, and opulent drapes that offset velvet emerald booths and modern, Art Deco-inspired details—also offers a stark departure from the typical aesthetics of Filipino restaurants, which tend to be more casual in design.

Animae
Photo by James Tran, courtesy of Animae

“The diversity in the dining room has changed tremendously,” Monsod says. “There are way more Filipinos. Last night, there were six tables of Filipino families. It really blows my mind when they say that they came from LA to have my food.”

Monsod was born and raised in Los Angeles and like many Angelenos, says that she spent much of her childhood in the car. She lived an hour outside the city, and went to school in Burbank, while her mom worked in a factory in Downtown LA and her dad worked in a shipping department for a studio company in Hollywood.

“We were a commuter family,” she says. “A lot of times there wasn't time to go home and cook, so during the week, we would go out to eat a lot. We'd kill a lot of time in traffic by stopping to eat dinner.”

They might have Mexican food one night, then Chinese or Jewish food the next. Monsod quickly developed a palate for international flavors and credits her childhood experiences for piquing her interest and appreciation for good food from a multitude of cultures. On weekends, her parents would cook Filipino food, or they might visit Filipino turo-turos, a fast food concept where diners pick what they want and take it in a box to go.

“Turo-turo means 'point-point',” Monsod says. “So you just point at what you want. My exposure to Filipino food as a kid was only as fast food. I knew when I was in culinary school that I wanted to put Filipino food out there as more than just a to-go option.”

Animae
Photo by James Tran, courtesy of Animae

There's certainly nowhere else in San Diego—and possibly Southern California—presenting traditional Filipino flavors in such a luxurious fine dining setting. “I think it makes [Filipino] people very proud because you don't see it very often,” Monsod says. “I'm putting a little more technique, maybe using better quality products, or different vegetables and putting a higher price tag on it. My cooking has a California-Asian vibe.”

Monsod recognizes that a lot of American diners lack exposure to Filipino cuisine, and that there can be a stereotype of it being cheap fast food. “Even people of our own culture sometimes don't want to pay a certain amount because that generation comes from a survival mindset, and sometimes it's hard to bring them through the door because they don't want to pay a certain amount for Filipino food that they feel they can make at home.”

However, Monsod has also noticed that first generation Asian Americans are eager to explore, and love seeing their culture shine in a different way. “It's definitely a generational thing,” she says. “What usually happens is that children from my generation will come, be impressed, and then bring their parents here. Because they want their parents to experience Filipino food in a place like this and served like this. And it creates a conversation within our community. Our community is very proud of how it’s represented. And food is obviously something very important in our culture. That's how we gather and how we take care of people. I'm trying my best to present our flavors in a respectful way.”

Monsod is also dedicated to supporting local AAPI businessowners and purveyors, highlighting ingredients from Chino Farms, Mostra Coffee, and San Diego's Asian LGBTQ-owned tea shop, PARU Tea, on the menu. “We have to support each other,” she says. “You gotta give love to get love. It's simple.” Even if it means a little extra effort—for example, Monsod has to drive to Chino Farms to pick up produce because they don't deliver.

When it comes to ingredients, Monsod doesn't cut any corners. She'll shop at 99 Ranch Market for specialty ingredients like Filipino shrimp paste or a specific type of Japanese soy sauce that she can't get delivered. “I serve Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Thai flavors too, and it's a little hard to find a store that has everything,” she says. Monsod’s dedication to educating herself and thoughtfully presenting all of these cuisines makes a difference, helping her avoid the pitfall of diluted flavors that pan-Asian restaurants can fall into when led by non-Asian chefs.

Animae
Photo by James Tran, courtesy of Animae

“My team is really diverse,” Monsod says. She adds that, “They're really receptive to learning about these dishes and their origins.” Monsod takes time to teach her team and explain her inspiration so that cooks understand the significance behind each element of the dish and servers are equipped to understand the food and educate diners. “Some people think that just because you put sesame seeds and soy sauce on a dish, it's Asian, and that's not necessarily true.”

Not only is Monsod’s staff thoroughly trained in the ingredients and cultural significance of each dish, they’re also given opportunities to contribute to the menu.

“The culture in my kitchen is that we're a family,” she says. “There's no front of house and back of house separation. It's all one cohesive team and communication is key to being successful.”

Animae
Photo by James Tran, courtesy of Animae

For Animae's summer menu, Monsod is excited about her lead cook Sara's Vegan Mushroom Salad, a cold udon dish from her line cook Andrew, and a Korean Rice Cake and sausage dish by her line cook Chianne.

“In the end, guests may only care about what I'm doing, but I couldn't be successful without my amazing team,” Monsod says proudly.

Animae’s new summer menu launches on Wednesday, May 11. The restaurant is open Tuesday–Thursday from 5–9 pm and Friday and Saturday from 5–9:30 pm. Reservations can be made online.

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Amber Gibson is an LA-based journalist specializing in luxury travel, food, wine and wellness. Her work also appears in Conde Nast Traveler, The Telegraph, Saveur and Fodor's. Follow her on IG @amberyv.