Our Filipino-ness is not something we switch on from October 1 to 31. It’s not a costume. Filipino is part of who we are, always. October is every month, and Filipino American History Month is a special time for us to celebrate and remember who we are. Chicago’s Sunda celebrates Filipino American History Month with weekly specials all October, culminating with a kamayan dinner on October 25.
GOIN' UP ON A MARTES.
Sunda defies the stereotypes of what a Filipino restaurant looks like. Located in downtown Chicago’s busiest nightlife area and with a capacity of more than 200 seats, it’s where Goin’ up on a Tuesday isn’t unusual. On any night of the week, it’s packed with glitterati, like Taraji Henson from FOX's Empire earlier this month. Sunda is abuzz, just like owner Billy Dec’s nearby nightclub, The Underground, and as shoulder-to-shoulder busy like Rockit Burger Bar in Wrigleyville on game day (GO CUBS).
The scene inside Sunda isn’t what many think of as a ‘typical’ Filipino restaurant, and neither are its Filipino dishes. Along with a group of invited press, Filipino Kitchen tasted Sunda’s October menu of classic and reimagined plates. Billy and his team introduced each one and shared with us about Filipino cuisine and culture.
Soup-less Sinigang (ended October 11)
Sunda executive chef Chef Jess DeGuzman took an inventive route with the sinigang: grilled South African jumbo prawn, soy drizzle atop an airy tamarind veloute (instead of broth) and a green bean and tomato patis-dressed salad. Because “sinigang is always supposed to be eaten with rice,” according to Chef Jess, he made a panko-fried sweet sushi rice roll, on which the giant prawns rest.
Bicol Express (ended October 18)
Chef Jess stuck closer to home with this dish. Served inside a coconut, this dish is a play of heat with sweet: green lip mussels and roast pork belly in a stew of coconut milk and chilies. Momma would remind you to scrape off that coconut meat inside before you let them take your plate away. It’s like a food bonus round.
Bulalo (October 19 to 25)
Bula-whoa! Luxurious. While the original dish is a distilled essence of beef using cartilage, marrow and other cuts close to the bone, Sunda’s version swings to the other side of the pendulum: bold, in-your-face dino bone. Their version is roasted beef marrow, bones cut lengthwise into troughs convenient for sopping up with a side of house-made pandesal, the ubiquitous Filipino bread rolls. Their bulalo comes with a flourish of oxtail adobo jam, a port wine reduction, shallots, bay leaf, soy and vinegar.
Kinilaw (October 26th to November 1)
Didja want another pork dish?! It’s fish. What do you expect — it’s the Philippine ISLANDS. Said Billy, “Many Americans who have tried Filipino food will never have kinilaw. Fish is super plentiful. It’s super fresh. We’re able to do it [at Sunda] because we have a full-blown sushi bar, whereas most Filipino restaurants would not be able to serve it on a constant basis.” Chef Jess’s sushi prowess shines through the cool, clean and elegant kinilaw: Pacific yellowtail, striped bass, flounder cured in coconut milk, yuzu, calamansi, tomatoes and thai bird’s eye chilies.
KAMAYAN DINNER, OCTOBER 25
To culminate the month-long celebration, Sunda will host a kamayan dinner on October 25. The practice of eating with silver cutlery is a European convention, brought to the islands by Spaniards. In kamayan, from the root Tagalog word, ‘kamay,’ or hand, food is eaten with the hands.
At this year's Chicago Gourmet, a weekend festival of Chicago's finest culinarians at Millennium Park, Billy brought kamayan to the hungry crowd.
Their October 25 menu includes shrimp and chicken adobo skewers, dinuguan, crispy soft shell crab and more. Tickets can be purchased online for $80, which includes tax, tip and a cocktail with Tanduay Rum from the Philippines.
FILIPINO CUISINE: FOODIE FOOD BEFORE THAT WAS A THING
As we reported last year, Sunda is the open secret Filipino restaurant in Chicago. Sunda’s Filipino American History Month menu adds to the numerous array of Filipino dishes already on the menu: from longganisa, spam and tocino for weekend brunch; to pancit canton and chicken inasal for lunch; to crispy pork shank aka crispy pata for dinner; to the Sunda Sundae aka halo-halo for dessert. One of the standard Filipino items on offer is sisig, a pork offal dish. The late Lucita Cunanan, aka Aling Lucing, invented the dish in the 70s. She lived near the US Clark Air Force base in Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines. An enterprising restaurateur, Lucita noticed that the base threw away the pigs' heads.
Said Billy, “Being a third world country and not EVER throwing food away, a lot of these people started creating dishes based off of these things. Fast forward to 2015, that’s like the total foodie food. ‘Oh my God, I want pig face... I want pig ears.'”
“I couldn’t put that on the menu here [a few years ago] because, one, I couldn’t describe it. People’d go ‘yeah, right’ in 2009. Two, I wouldn’t know what to charge for it because it’s scraps. It wouldn’t make sense. So we’ve had it as an off-menu item. People who know, especially people of Filipino descent, they order it.”
WHY FILIPINO CUISINE DOESN’T HAVE AS MANY BIG RESTAURANTS LIKE SUNDA IN CHICAGO
Billy’s hospitality group, Rockit Ranch Productions, manages and owns six restaurants, bars and nightclubs across the city, including Sunda. They’ve been in business since 2002 and his experience in the industry reaches further back. Asked by a fellow writer if there are other Filipino restaurants in Chicago, Billy responded:
“They’re really mom-and-pop-ish. The ones that try to break out and elevate the level of ingredients, service, presentation, they tend not to be able to drive the mainstream to actually pay for it, and they end up crashing. So forever you’ve been stuck with these mom-and-pop shops that are not seen as very sophisticated at all. More like being at your grandma’s house. It’s very grassroots-ish, and it’s cheap."
"A bunch of chefs in the past have tried to come out with a nicer quality version of Filipino food, but when you do that, you gotta charge X amount. In order to charge X amount, you have to have the diners, and Filipinos wouldn’t want to pay that.”
NOTHING LEFT TO PROVE
In addition to running his businesses, Billy Dec is also an appointee of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. When hosting us in late September, Billy was soon to be on his way to Washington DC to co-emcee the first-ever Filipino Heritage Celebration at the White House. Frankly I was surprised to hear that it was the first time it had been commemorated at the prestigious residence. Why now?
“Our voices are catching the mainstream, from culinary to entertainment. And because this year was the first year that the Asian American Pacific Islander race group category became the number one fastest growing in the country. Within that category of thirty Asian American Pacific Islanders, Filipinos are the second largest. That’s a very big deal. Especially because it’s a very vocal community, one that’s had the closest relationship with the US. It’s also a culinary category that hasn’t really had its day yet… So it’s a super exciting time.”
Leading the celebration of 175 Filipino American leaders were Apl.de.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas, White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford; and supermodel, TED speaker and transgender advocate Geena Rocero. One special guest Billy mentioned last.
“I’m bringing my mom to prove I’m Filipino.”
We’re not sure there’s anything left to prove, Billy.
Sunda is located at 111 W. Illinois, Chicago.