Last week, owner Joaquin Soler debuted the new and improved Smalls, which leans more toward traditional Filipino flavors rather than relying on the smoked meats that made the Albany Park restaurant a cult favorite. Soler described his new approach as a “rice and three,” a play on the meat and three cafeteria-style eateries many Americans already know. It includes a new focus on vegetables.
“It seems historically there’s been a misconception about Filipino food—that it’s very meat-centric,” Soler said. “Having growing up in the Philippines I can say it is not.”
For those accustomed to Smalls’ smoked brisket and pulled pork, the change may be difficult. Last week, Soler said he had some conversations with customers wondering about the whereabouts of Smalls’ meaty old standbys. The menu will rotate, and Soler is still working on finding a place for those old Smalls’ favorites, including those Filipino-style ribs. Eventually he hopes to have a menu that changes depending on the day so customers will know exactly what to expect during each visit.
Smalls has developed a quite a following inside their tiny quarters with Soler’s version of barbecue. Smalls’ ribs made Eater’s Essential Barbecue Dishes in America. The new Smalls—and yes, they are keeping the name—is a tribute to turo-turos, which translates to “point point.” Those are Filipino restaurants where diners point at items which then get plated on their dish.
“You just point at what you want,” Soler said. “You may not have it before, but it looks good and it sounds good.”
Soler said the changes were prompted by the desire to try something new. He also hopes to tap into the emerging popularity of Filipino food. Guests will pick one of the braised meats available and then two veggies. The quantities can change depending on how much food is desired. The goal is to get customers out of the door with food in about 10 minutes. It’s going to be longer if they order fried chicken, and yes, the fried chicken will be a permanent fixture. The menu also includes Thai and Korean touches.
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Despite the objections of Soler’s young son, fries have come off the menu. That means folks who order fried chicken don’t have to wait as long, as the fried chicken no longer has to compete for fryer space with the fries.
The fries with homemade Cheese Whiz may make a comeback when Soler institutes a late-night menu, however, which is another change. That will include lumpia Shanghai—cigarette-shaped crispy rolls stuffed with ground pork—served with sweet chili or sweet soy sauce, as well as also adobo-spiced nuts served with fried garlic. The food is ideal for customers of Lizard’s Liquid Lounge around the corner and the ideal companion to beer. Drinking while eating has a rich history in the Philippines.
The ribs will eventually find their place back on the menu, but Soler doesn’t want to be seen as pandering. He wants to maintain quality. Check out Smalls’ social media channels to be sure of the day’s menu selections.
“I don’t want to put out some kind of junior edition of an old Smalls menu item,” Soler said. “I want it to be thoughtful. We put a lot of thought into our food.”
Smalls, 4009 N. Albany Ave., (312) 857-4221, open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday, late-night menu upcoming. Check social media to be sure of hours during soft open phase.