Filipino pop-ups and Hawaiian fast-casual spots offer a taste of home

There’s a certain kind of precision needed when carving Spam. Hormel seals the pork loaf inside the blue canister like the Commandments inside the Ark of the Covenant, then boils the whole thing to achieve the right doneness and that wet-crack sound when you wrench back the metal.

You must keep your eyes open when slicing a Spam brick, as Michelle Vi Pepping tells it: Cautious knife placement and a steady hand are essential to get neat, uniform slabs of that “Sizzle Pork And Mmm.”

“We have to be very careful when cutting each can into four slices,” says Pepping, who owns Okaeri Cafe and Chelle’s Seafood Kitchen, both in Richardson. “It takes the right amount of heat, cook time and flipping to get that seared perfection.”

For Okaeri’s onigirazu, Pepping chars a thick slice of Spam, paints it with a sweet, tangy sauce, then parks it with an egg patty, lettuce, rice and a sheet of nori wrapped around it all like a gift. It’s one of many Spam dishes you’ll find in Dallas right now, thanks to a batch of Filipino pop-ups and Hawaiian-focused restaurants that feature this pantry staple. To be clear, it’s not a trend or a quirk. There’s no irony in using the canned meat. This is about serving up a little bit of home.

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Spam Onigirazu (spam sushi sandwich) at Okaeri Cafe in Richardson
Spam Onigirazu (spam sushi sandwich) at Okaeri Cafe in Richardson (Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

Anna Swann of Ulam Dallas knows the power of the canned ham way down deep in her marrow. She’s a self-taught cook, with memories imprinted from childhood years spent watching her family in the kitchen of their Bay Area home. She’s knife-steady enough to yield eight to ten Spam cuts per can – it’s the thinner cutlets that sing to her. Sheer slices get wall-to-wall char in the pan; thicker slices are better for a seared outside and softer inside.

When Swann moved to Texas in 2006, she found herself missing old family recipes. When the pandemic opened up a hole in the world, she filled it with the food that makes her happy. She taught herself more techniques and hosted live streams and recipes for dishes that friends could replicate at home during the worst of times. Spamsilog is one of those soul-warmer favorites: It’s a Filipino breakfast iconoclast of pan-seared Spam, very garlicky rice and a forkful of eggs. It’s a home meal.

In the past year, she’s brought this precise feeling to her food through Ulam. Whenever possible, she sends up big, torch-bright twists on Filipino comfort foods. Recently, she fired dishes streetside at Sandwich Hag’s night market. She’s also been known to do musubi-themed offerings, including a Spamsilog musubi. Panes of Spam, each lacquered with a sweet-sticky-sour glaze, are combined with a scrambled egg struck with furikake seasoning and plenty of garlicky rice.

“The key is the pan-fry,” she says of Spam. “That combo of the garlic rice, the runny egg … for me, it’s the taste of home.”

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A serving of Spamsilog, a breakfast dish made with Spam, garlic fried rice and fried eggs, ...
A serving of Spamsilog, a breakfast dish made with Spam, garlic fried rice and fried eggs, is plated after being whipped together by Ulam Dallas owner and chef Anna Swann.(Liesbeth Powers / Special Contributor)

You’ll find more meals like this around the city. In a strip mall, right off a forever-roaring Interstate 635, Marie’s Kitchen has a diner-simple, totally delicious Spamsilog – two blister slices of the good stuff, rice and two fried eggs. New restaurant Ober Here in Fort Worth has homemade “Spam” bowls, made with house-ground pork and ham. Then there’s Aloha Hawaiian BBQ on Lemmon Avenue, which will drop a Spam musubi on your table as tall and beach-escapist as From Here to Eternity. A recent influx of Hawaiian restaurants has brought even more dishes, like Spam saimin, a noodle soup with Spam, at L&L Hawaiian BBQ in Plano.

The most pervasive misconception about Spam is that it’s made of “mystery meat.” There’s no mystery to it: It’s made of pork shoulder and ham. There are only five additional ingredients – salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrate. After debuting in America in 1937 from Hormel Foods, Spam quickly joined the warfront as a shelf-stable meat product for US soldiers fighting in the Pacific campaign of World War II. Millions of cans landed in Guam, Japan, the Philippines and Hawaii.

“They took what Americans brought into the Philippines and made it their own,” Swann says.

She remembers the epiphany she experienced after a from-scratch version of Spam that Dallas chef Misti Norris, now of Petra and the Beast restaurant, had created at Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff. Norris’ homespun version of the dish inspired Swann to do the same: She engineered her version of Spam for a batch of tequeños during a 2021 pop-up that partnered her with Modest Rogers chef Modesto Rodriguez.

“OK, this turned out!” she beamed at her homemade Spam. “I can do this!”

Moving forward, Swann hopes to debut more Spam-in-sandwich-form at Ulam. Maybe some kimchi fried rice with Spam and a giant egg. Before that, she plans to travel back to California and spend some time at home.

“It’s been a journey for me – I’ve been diving deeper into my family’s history,” she says. “It’s just so powerful.”

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Anna Swann, the owner and chef of Ulam Dallas, a modern Filipino kitchen, makes Spamsilog, a ...
Anna Swann, the owner and chef of Ulam Dallas, a modern Filipino kitchen, makes Spamsilog, a breakfast dish made with Spam, garlic fried rice and fried eggs.(Liesbeth Powers / Special Contributor)

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