Filipino Breakfast at Uncle Mike’s Place in Ukrainian Village
Story and Photos by Kristine Sherred
“We hate that word,” the duo nearly proclaims in unison. Sitting across the table from two-thirds of the active community group Filipino Kitchen, it’s hard not to smile at their shared disgust of a word many food writers take for granted: authentic.
“It’s practically lost all meaning. It’s like nails on a chalkboard [to us],” said Caitlin Preminger, the group’s Project Manager. “It’s so relative – how could it mean anything?”
“We feel the same way about traditional,” Natalia Roxas, the group’s Co-Founder, interjects. “Are you cracking open that coconut?” She points to the Ginataang Gulay at Hipon (eggplant, zucchini, and shrimp steamed in a rich coconut milk broth) on the table at Isla Pilipina, the standard-bearer for Chicago’s Filipino food community. “That would be traditional.”
“Maybe typical is a better word,” Caitlin posits. “It doesn’t attract such a value judgement.”
Born in the Philippines, Roxas moved to the States at 15. Her cohort, Preminger, is freckled, a redhead – they banter back and forth about this difference playfully. Yet the pair views authenticity with equally open arms and a wide-eyed, there-is-no-right-way perspective.
What does it mean to be authentic? In the world of food, this nine-letter word always seems to attract plenty of social media commentary. Filipino Kitchen Co-Founder and writer Sarahlynn Pablo (for the record, of Filipino heritage but born in Chicago and raised in Des Plaines) references the documentary, The Search for General Tso, about a decidedly inauthentic dish gracing Chinese restaurant menus across America. But does that make it, well, atypical?
Take sinigang, for example. Pablo says when you compare the sour tamarind soup made with tomatoes, green beans, onions, bok choy, and a choice of fatty proteins, then hold it up against mom’s spaghetti – an odd combination of standard spaghetti noodles tossed with a banana ketchup tomato sauce, parmesan or cheddar cheese, and sliced pieces of hot dog, “you have all these Southeast Asian flavors, and then you have that,” Pablo laughs. “But both are very Filipino.”
The Philippines have a long and complicated history with not just the U.S. but dozens of countries from nearby Southeast Asia to Western Europe, all of whom have influenced Filipino cuisine, culture, and genealogy. Roxas offers up a photo of her Irish-German great-grandfather, who was stationed on one of the islands at the turn of the century. “Damn Grandpa!” she remarks on his admittedly good looks. He fell in love with Roxas’s Spanish great-grandmother, establishing a diverse, yet not uncommon Filipino family tree, or as she jokes, “my family is like the United Colors of Benetton!”
A quick history lesson: The U.S. acquired the Philippines from Spain (which ruled the nation for some 300 years), in the Treaty of Paris of 1898, which ended the Spanish-American War. The U.S. controlled the island nation through an insular civilian government from 1901 until 1935, at which point the country transitioned into the Commonwealth of the Philippines, an elected assembly with permission to become a sovereign nation within ten years. World War II delayed formal independence until 1946.
On top of the racial diversity stemming from centuries of imperialism, the pure geography of the archipelago results in great disparities from island to island. Inland and in metropolitan areas, pork is by far the most prominent and least expensive protein, explains Roxas, whereas near the coasts, it’s mainly seafood.
Since Filipino Kitchen’s inception last year, and before their first full-blown Kultura Festival at the Logan Square Emporium in October, the most commonly asked question from outsiders remains the same: what is Filipino food?
“There’s 7,107 islands. I don’t think there’s unison!” exclaims Roxas. “Plus there is a true diaspora.” She flicks her fingers in and flairs her hands out in exploding volcano form – brooohaaaa!
“Is that a technical term?” asks Preminger, emulating the hand gesture and complementary noise. They are referring to the 11 million Filipinos living abroad, more than 3.5 million of whom live in the U.S. Though almost half call California home, Hawaii is a close second and Illinois tied for third with Texas, New York, and New Jersey. Thus, Filipino Kitchen has quickly established itself as a force to reckon with in the Filipino-American community, despite Chicago’s reputation with the culture and cuisine as one shrouded in mystery.
Ask a Filipino friend for a suggestion on where to try true Filipino food, and the response will likely yield “my mom’s house” (seriously, Filipinos champion their mother’s cooking) or perhaps Isla Pilipina in Lincoln Square, Uncle Mike’s Place in Ukrainian Village, or Sunda in River North. The latter’s owner, Billy Dec, is, in fact Filipino, and more than two-thirds of their back-of-the-house staff is too. Though billed as New Asian, many classic Filipino dishes grace the menu, albeit all dolled-up for the River North crowd. Roxas and Pablo recommend the Adobo fried rice, jidori inasal, and halo halo (a shaved ice dessert with ube ice cream, boba bearls and other jellies misleadingly called the Sunda Sundae).
On a Sunday morning visit to Uncle Mike’s – itself disguised by the archetypal diner bar and American breakfast icons like the Western Omelette, Monte Cristo, pancakes and French toast – only one couple makes a beeline to the traditional side of the menu. Otherwise, mixed couples, a table or two of Ukrainian Village millennials and young families all dig into a plastic bowl of lugao (also spelled lugaw), a tangy rice porridge teaming with a lemon-ginger broth and topped with scallions, crushed peanuts, and a lemon wedge. The waitress sets it down without request, and everyone seems to fall in line. Owner Mike Grajewski recalls his staff worrying that customers would deny the free bowl, but he insisted, “Just give it to them! Sure enough, one guy eventually reaches for the other’s bowl too.”
The flip side of the menu is all Filipino: garlic fried rice, a sunny egg, and a sort of pico de gallo paired with longanisa (a sweeter chorizo-style sausage), tocino (anise and wine-cured pork shoulder, fried until crisp), or bangus (a tiny-boned, delicately fried milkfish, the official seafood of the Philippines). An under $20 skirt steak, pork chop, and frizzled Spam – another remnant of imperialism – complete the plate and combination platters. Before going all-in Filipino in 2005 (the menu always featured items like fried rice and egg rolls), Uncle Mike’s sold dozens of basic bacon and egg dishes. Now, Grajewski says they are hard pressed to make ten on any given day.
Rice for breakfast? Let’s not forget that we are, after all, in Southeast Asia. That flavorful guinataang at Isla hardly begs for rice, but upon hesitation to include it in the same bite, Roxas doesn’t skip a beat.
“That’s what I’m saying! You don’t ask that. Rice goes with everything.”
Even novice Filipino foodies can do no wrong. Pablo pours sinigang over rice, while Roxas and Preminger scoop a heap of rice onto a plate, then spoon a bit into the soup for a full bite. Isla serves one family-style bowl with little bowls on the side, while some prefer individual servings. The point being: eat the way you want to.
With Filipino Kitchen, the board members strive to be totally inclusive. The Filipino community is “very complicated,” says Roxas, “but we are great assimilators.” She and Pablo, in addition to their eleven other board members, invite everyone with interest to join them. Take Preminger as Exhibit A: she is totally white, not afraid to admit it, and calls herself an honorary Filipino. They also wish to showcase Filipino cuisine under the same lights as their Asian counterparts; Pablo blames the mystery on regional variants and the lack of restaurant culture in the Philippines, which hasn’t translated so well to the U.S.
In Chicago, many of the mom-and-pop Filipino spots offer buffets, an intimidating proposition to a fledgling fan. Even Isla PilIpina, bustling on a Wednesday night with not just Filipino-Americans but other young Lincoln Square families, has changed to attract a more diverse clientele.
Opened by the Espiritu family in 2009, the couple bequeathed the business to their art-grad son Ray, and friends Adam Cruz and Lakhi Siap, five years ago. He spruced up the joint, hanging artwork on the barren walls, adding a new wood counter to separate the cozy dining room from the swinging door of the kitchen, removing the buffet and updating the menu design. Under his parents, only a chalkboard menu gleaned high above the counter, but now it’s cute, clever – Sizzling Sisig is not just pork ears and cheeks but also “soul!” – and handed to guests on laminated paper when seated. The dishes aren’t breaking any new ground, per se, but Filipino-Chicagoans (and Andrew Zimmern just last week!) regularly turn to Isla for the comfort of home.
Here the Adobo rice is the bargain of the century at only $9 for a portion that could feed a family of five; along with most everything on the menu, it is served in the original, family style. Perhaps the most recognized signature of Filipino cooking is adobo; this indigenous braising technique requires a mere five ingredients – bay leaf, garlic, vinegar often of the cane variety, soy sauce, and black peppercorns. As Roxas notes, “You can adobo anything!” For Pablo, chicken adobo exemplifies Filipino food: it’s simple, tastes delicious, and well, fried rice is fried rice!
But why is Filipino omitted from the lengthy cuisine options on food search sites, when Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese are all specifically mentioned? Gilbert Paule of HAPA, a roving restaurant reimagining American comfort foods with Pan-Asian flavors, sees this second generation of Filipino-Americans as changing that fact. He cites local chef Chrissy Camba and New York’s Dale Talde as two Filipino-Americans pushing boundaries and introducing a wider audience to the cuisine. Roxas, Pablo, and Preminger also name a few other chefs in New York – Amy Bessa (Purple Yam, Cendrillon), Björn DelaCruz (Manila Social Club), and Miguel Trinidad (Jeepney, Maharlika) – who are changing the conversation.
The community is still riddled with “traditionalists and food purists,” says Paule, who insist that each dish must be cooked a certain way. With HAPA, he and his two partners reinvent a dish like chicken and waffles into something more welcoming to a skeptical eater. Their most popular dish is a Thai fried chicken and waffle sandwich, but for October’s Kultura Festival, he blended the common Filipino ingredient ube (a sweeter, starchier and vibrantly colored purple yam) into the waffle. “It’s easier to want to try something when it’s in these familiar packages.”
To the older generation, these decisions might be considered blasphemous, but the Filipino Kitchen ladies are storming full steam ahead. After October’s wildly successful Kultura – they sold 600 pre-sale tickets for $10 each but another 400 people showed up at the door – Kultura returns this weekend, for what Roxas calls, facetiously, a “bastardized version of a Filipino Christmas.” Six food vendors have signed on, including Camba, Paule, and Kristine Subido (whose Pecking Order closed last year), in addition to an array of Filipino artists and DJs. In some ways, they are culinary descendants of Jennifer Aranas, the local chef and author of The Filipino-American Kitchen, whose Rambutan restaurant, which had a pretty good run in the 90s, now seems like it was ahead of its time.
The ladies mention three existing annual events in the Filipino-Chicago community but clearly express a certain vexation toward them. Ryan Viloria, a fellow board member, says younger Filipino-Americans grew tired of the events being “more about the celebrities [they paid to be there] than about the culture or the food.” Outsiders, for lack of a better term, would most likely be totally disinterested in meeting a Filipino celebrity, just as outsiders would be more likely to try Uncle Mike’s or Isla for the first time alongside a Filipino friend of family member.
So Filipino Kitchen was born to bridge that divide, to be completely inclusive, rather than exclusive. They started hosting pop-up dinners, first at Isla, then elsewhere in Chicago and in other cities, inviting chefs to stay for a sort of residency to explore their cuisine further and to start breaking down those barriers. Kultura was a way to bring all of that food, art, and music under one roof, open to the public.
One particularly timid attendee, despite no mention in the first festival’s promotions, called the bar and asked, “do I have to be Filipino to get in?” The ladies just laughed, “Oh hell naw!”