Culinary novelty in NorCal’s Castro Valley

Chef and owner Sunthie

By Jun Ilagan

Castro Valley, the East Bay town nestled between San Leandro and San Ramon in California, typically is not in the radar of anyone on the hunt for anything Pinoy. To begin with, there are only a little over 1,200 kababayan there, out of a total population of around 63,000.

And so when Julsunthie “Sunthie” Calalo and his wife Marites opened Dampa (Tagalog for ‘small, modest abode’) Restaurant in August 2010, Castro Valley has since hosted its first and, to date, only Filipino dining place and catering service — as well as the regular and increasingly frequent visits of diners from neighboring towns and cities.

“What amazes us is that our growing customer base now includes more non-Filipinos,” Sunthie, the restaurant’s chef, told this reporter. “The other day, we had a middle-age white couple who ordered pork ‘sinigang,’ and they told us how much they enjoyed it.”

Truth is, Sunthie and Marites have gotten used to such customer reaction of delight. And for a reason. The novelty of a lone Filipino restaurant in Castro Valley may have worn off, but the freshness and superb taste of every dish Sunthie personally puts together are as consistent as the intense passion for cooking he has nurtured since childhood.

Recounted the native of Batangas province: “As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. I always volunteered to help in the food preparation for town fiestas, wedding banquets, and other large gatherings. I inherited this love for cooking from my father.”

Sunthie’s biggest break came at the age of 11. The cook who was supposed to take care of their spread for the town fiesta wasn’t able to show up, after all the ingredients had been procured and prepared the night before.

“Without hesitation, I announced to the household that I could do it,” Sunthie continued. “My grandmother looked at me rather suspiciously, but gave me the nod. I whipped up ‘menudo,’ ‘afritada,’ and ‘dinuguan’ because while these three dishes are all different, they are cooked pretty much using the same approach. Everything turned out fine. Our guests enjoyed the food.”

That early, Sunthie’s cooking savvy was already evolving. He continued to refine his skill through the years he spent in the kitchens of various food chains, restaurants and hotels in the Philippines, Guam, and California.

He fondly remembers working with the executive chef of a top hotel in Guam, where his dad, a retired US, Navy man, first brought the family.

“He was Japanese, and from him I learned that Japanese food is held sacred. There are exact rules to follow in the preparation … no exceptions, no shortcuts, no nonsense,” Sunthie said.

Dampa Restaurant

It is the same code of conduct, discipline if you will, that Sunthie follows every single day. He starts off at dawn, preparing breakfast for the children who come to the couple’s day-care service that Marites manages until late afternoon on weekdays. After that, he hits the road to the market to pick up the freshest ingredients he will need for the day.

The almost-daily trip to the food market is critical. Sunthie makes sure all vegetables and seafood are the day’s freshest harvest. Entrées are cooked as they are ordered. No wonder, even a serving of ‘turon’ takes 10 minutes to get from the kitchen to the customer’s table.

“That’s because we peel the bananas only after receiving the order,” he said.

Asked why it took him a while to put up Dampa, Sunthie confided that while he had always dreamed of owning and operating a restaurant, he thought his kitchen skills still wouldn’t cut it. This is where Marites was key.

“Marites has always been my morale booster,” Sunthie declared. “It’s from her that I learned patience and persistence. To her I owe the confidence I now have that this restaurant will always serve nothing less than perfection.”

That’s saying a lot about Castro Valley’s Dampa Restaurant — and about Marites, who could be on a mission to help Sunthie flesh out a mini-dream: to personally meet his idols, celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Anthony Bourdain.

Jun Ilagan is the editor of the FilAm Star weekly in San Francisco.

Leave a Reply