Has Filipino Food Finally “Made It” in Chicago?

The Midwest’s first Jollibee. Seafood City’s blowout grand opening. Filipino food is having a moment in Chicago—will the popularity stick this time?

In 1998, a restaurant called Rambutan opened on a rather removed stretch of Belmont just west of Milwaukee Avenue, serving a version of Filipino food that was nothing like the usual mom-and-pop, steam-table fare. Despite enjoying some success, even moving to a hipper spot in Wicker Park, the restaurant shuttered after just four years in business.

“For whatever reason, it just never really captured people’s imagination the way Japanese, Chinese, Thai food did,” says Joaquin Soler, Rambutan’s then-chef de cuisine, now the owner of Smalls Smoke Shack.

In retrospect, Soler says, Rambutan was ahead of its time. But this year could prove to be the tipping point for Filipino food in Chicago.

In 2016, it’s been common to see people queueing up for the Southeast Asian country’s cuisine—whether it’s at fast-food chain Jollibee, which opened its first Midwest outpost in Skokie in July, or the equally hyped supermarket Seafood City on Elston Avenue—again, the first for the Midwest.

And on Sunday, Emporium Arcade Bar in Logan Square will play host for a second year to Kultura Festival, billed as a modern Filipino-American food and arts festival, where Filipino chefs from Chicago and other cities turn out the sort of street-meets-sophisticated food—duck confit adobo tacos, ube waffles—that people happily line up for, iPhones in hand, ready to Instagram. 

Last year’s inaugural festival drew a mixed crowd of more than 1,000, double what organizers Sarahlynn Pablo, Natalia Roxas-Alvarez, and Caitlin Preminger of the website Filipino Kitchen had anticipated. There’s more of everything this year: food, entertainment, space, and, they hope, attendees.

“We have the critical mass of the community,” Pablo says.

Momentum has been building from coast to coast. Bad Saint, a 24-seat Filipino restaurant in Washington D.C., is No. 2 on Bon Appetit’s annual list of the 10 best new restaurants in America. (In the magazine’s August issue, a full-page photo and recipe for halo-halo was hard to miss.) In Los Angeles, much of the buzz is centered on a crop of young Filipino chefs, among them Alvin Cailan (Eggslut/Ramen Champ/Unit 120), Charles Olalia (Rice Bar), and Chase and Chad Valencia (LASA), who cook versions of food they ate growing up, in distinct settings: bustling shopping plaza, tiny counter restaurant, weekend-only pop-up.

Soler and others say this groundswell of interest in Filipino food and culture by a broad, non-Filipino audience is partly rooted in the growth and maturation of Chicago’s culinary scene and dining public as a whole. It helps that the greater Chicago metropolitan area has the sixth largest Filipino population in the nation.

But until recently, the Filipino food scene here has been mostly inward-facing—Filipinos cooking for Filipinos, under the radar, out of the spotlight. There have always been places in Chicago and the suburbs serving food that tastes just like your (or your friend’s) Filipino grandma’s. Stalwarts such as Isla Pilipina in Lincoln Square, which maintains a devoted customer base. On Sundays, the dining room is 90 percent Filipino, says Ray Espiritu, who took over from his parents nine years ago when he was 24.

Even Kristine Subido, chef of the late, lamented Pecking Order, which like Rambutan appealed to an American audience, says she pulled back on emphasizing the Filipino side of her casual, chicken-centric restaurant. She opened it in 2010, when fried chicken was a trend du jour, and closed it two years later. (She continues to put out her food as Pecking Order Catering, at the Logan Square Farmers Market and at events like Kultura Festival.)

Subido might have been too early still. But exposure to the cuisine continued in more subtle ways, either from TV (the occasional Top Chef contestant of Filipino descent or Travel Channel show with Anthony Bourdain wolfing down balut) or on the menus of other restaurants around town. Pablo points to Lawrence Letrero of Sable Kitchen and Bar at Hotel Palomar: “Look at that menu. He’s got pancit lug lug. How much more Filipino can you get?” she says.

There also has been a generational shift. Young Filipino-American cooks are breaking the mold and getting noticed.

“The first generation that comes here, their goal is to survive and be prosperous. And then the first generation born here, maybe it’s not a goal but unconsciously it’s to assimilate, eat mac and cheese and all that. The generation after that—that’s the one. They’re talking to their Lola [grandmother], eating adobo and pancit. It’s part of their search for identity,” says Soler.

The pop-up restaurant culture has these given second-generation Filipino cooks room to experiment without too much risk or expense and, crucially, to promote their food, which the older generation didn’t.

“There’s a lot to be said for Facebook,” says Pablo. “The internet has allowed us to connect to each other across the diaspora and see all the cool things Filipinos are doing all across the country. It feels so much closer than it ever has.”

Chef AC Boral, one of the visiting chefs at Kultura Festival, lives in Long Beach, California, and runs Rice and Shine, a Filipino-American brunch pop-up. While in town, he’s doing a dinner Monday at Fat Rice. The restaurant is taking care of the cocktails; Boral will do a 10-course, $75 menu of what he calls Filipino-American soul food, dishes like foie gras toast and bruléed bibingka for dessert.

Boral says while he feels some obligation to pay tribute to his parents and his culture in his cooking, he, like his peers, just wants to express himself without having to explain too much or worry about authenticity.

“There’s this surge of creativity, a reframing of Filipino food not just for ourselves, but for everybody else,” Boral says. “We want everybody to try our food.”

There is still room for more Filipino food, high and low, elevated and everyday, at least in Chicago. Rambutan 2.0 has yet to materialize and stick. Espiritu says at one point, there were seven Filipino restaurants within a one-mile radius of Isla Pilipina, but that’s no longer the case. Chrissy Camba’s attempt at a full-blown Filipino restaurant, Laughing Bird, had a too-brief, six-month run in Lincoln Square in 2014; she has been looking to make her Maddy’s Dumpling House pop-up concept a permanent one since then.

Keeping a brick-and-mortar business alive, no matter what the cuisine, is still really, really hard.

At Smalls, Soler infuses his barbecue with Filipino and other Southeast Asian flavors but says with Filipino food having such a moment, it’s made him want to do more.

“I’m definitely considering getting back into it, putting out the food I grew up eating, things people in Manila ate when I was growing up,” he says.

The demand is there. It always was.