The number one reason I love Chicago is because of the ethnic food options. Sure, the lake is magical, and, of course, the skyline is epic. But I've yet to find another city in the world that offers such a wide swath of foreign eats in such a short span of concrete. Food from every corner of the globe can be found at corner-side shacks, candlelit trattorias, "opa!" bellowing dining halls, and tortilla slinging taco joints—and my astronomical love for it is endless.
But, there are plenty of countries I've not yet explored, and the Philippines makes the top five on my list. It's not that I'm not interested; I've just never been lured into it. You never hear people gushing about the great kare-kare (meat stew with peanut sauce) they had last night, you know? That all changed the day I slammed on my brakes outside Mariegold Bake Shoppe, a glass-fronted Filipino spot on California Avenue. From the look of the dusty exterior, it was definitely an insider-only joint and the small parking lot had one tight spot left—clearly reserved for me.
I busted through the front door full of piss and vinegar, only to be shot down immediately by half a dozen pairs of eyes—not hostile gazes, just inquisitive looks of interest. Yikes! I always get timid when it comes to ordering food I'm unfamiliar with; after nosing around the brimming shelves in the market/pantry section of the buffet-style bakeshop, I slowly inched my way toward the counter. Piles of meat stews, whole fried fishes and veggie concoctions that I had no idea what make of were splayed out before me. What to do, what to do?
The helpful counter boy instantly came to my rescue, happily describing the bevy of dishes. I was only half listening because the scent wafting out from the kitchen was so intoxicating, I could barely focus. The assiduous Filipino cooks were on a frenzied bread-baking mission, and the smell of yeasty buns overtook the bustling store. After excusing myself to go to the restroom (located in the rear of the kitchen), I wandered through the kitchen and came across a war zone, a really hectic, really good smelling war zone. Cooks dumped boiling water into giant buckets; they lined up fresh pastries on industrial racks and crushed cardboard boxes, while someone else transferred brimming vats of rice into more manageable vessels. I was so wide-eyed with joy at witnessing the chaos in a no-access kitchen, I just stood there and breathed it all in. In the hustle of the tiny space, business went on as usual with nary a face glancing my way.
After a few minutes, I broke down and headed back out front to point and nod at my lunch order. It all started with a heap of steaming rice. From there, my server blasted my plate with a skewer of glazed beef, some sort of pork and potato stew, a dollop of green vegetables and a carrot-flecked fried fritter. I got the feeling that most folks took their food to go, but I was too glued to the action rolling in the front door to bolt so soon. It was bedlam. Seems all of Chicago's Filipino population knew that this was the place to get their imported goods from back home, and they were an enthusiastic bunch. Every man, woman or child that plowed through the front door threw me a smile before barreling up to the counter and spitting out their needs, rapid-fire ordering that had me so hypnotized.
I was half way finished with my delicious meal before I realized I'd even taken a bite. Eying a thick hunk of cream cheese-dotted flat cake, I shoved away my still-hot plate of food and patted my belly: Time for dessert. The sweet I was hurdling back and forth like a baseball was a specialty known as bibingka. Famous in the Philippines, this banana leaf enshrouded treat, a salt-tinged mix of flour, sugar, eggs, and cream cheese that is best served warm, is typically trotted out around the holidays. It was akin to a soft grenade of sweet bagel bites dotted with sour cream plops.
After getting my fill of a now not-so-daunting cuisine, I picked up a bag of the anchovy chops to try at home, but I couldn't take a single bite because the stench of the little cracker-like creatures consumed my kitchen. Sad to say, but the Filipino's don't quite have that one down yet.
The Final Rave: For some reason, all baked goods are only sold by the dozen, which I'm not sure is a bad thing.
Keep it going:
Eat it: Mom's Bake Shop
This is off-the-radar haunt is another family-owned choice for those who want to test the waters of Filipino cuisine.According to sources, it's cheap and tasty.
Do it: Cosmic Volunteers
For less than a grand, you can spend a month exploring the islands, living in a homestay, teaching English and eating home-cooked Filipino food. Sounds almost too good to be true.
Read it: Pinoy Cook
Learn more than you've ever wanted to know about the intricacies of Filipino food on this well-done blog. Yummy photos included.
Get crazy with it: Niles
This 'burb is allegedly the best place in Illinois to get Filipino food, and Cid's Ma Mon Luk is considered home base. Comfort food at it's finest.