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A Pair of Filipino-American Chefs Unveil Two New Dining Options

A Taste of the Philippines is now open at Chicago’s French Market, while Boonie Foods pops up in Logan Square

Tocino chicken will eventually be on the menu.
Taste of the Philippines/Kathy Vega Hardy

Two Fil-Am (Filipino-American) restaurant owners are ready to show Chicago something new. A Taste of the Philippines opens Monday at Chicago’s French Market in West Loop, while Boonie Foods has popped up over the last two months at the Crab Pad in Logan Square.

For Kathy Vega Hardy, owner of A Taste of the Philippines, her business survived winter and shelter-in-place in Illinois thanks to drop-off orders and the occasional catering gig. Taste of the Philippines built a following the last three years at Loop farmers markets, including the one in front of Daley Plaza. The status of those markets remains uncertain, but that’s not stopping Vega Hardy. She’s opening a new food stall Monday at Chicago’s French Market, joining more than 20 food vendors operating on the street level of the Ogilvie Transportation Center. A Taste of the Philippines takes the spot formerly occupied by Firenze Italian Street Food.

The menu’s options, which will vary from day to day, range from additions like bistek tagalog, tocino chicken, longganisa scotch eggs, and ube donuts, as well as her two specialties: pancit and lumpia. Not everything will be available opening day; Vega Hardy encountered an oven malfunction Monday which alters her offerings.

Vega Hardy in November scouted brick-and-mortar locations while she was eight months pregnant. The state’s shut down of restaurants in mid-March thwarted her April opening plans, Management at the French Market worked with her, and Vega Hardy feels blessed that the Market gave her a two-month break on her rent.

French Market officials told vendors that Metra’s daily ridership figures are running at 10 to 25 percent of pre-COVID daily capacity, according to Vega Hardy. That’s few potential customers with 1,000 to 2,000 Metra customers passing through daily versus 6,000 to 10,000. Looking towards the possibility of workers returning downtown on a semi-regular basis, Vega Hardy also hopes to collaborate with her fellow vendors.

“I’m nervous, I’m excited, I have first-day jitters. My followers online have shown me a lot of support throughout the offseason and the spring, and I hope they come out this week, too,” says Vega Hardy. Between opening a new location this Monday during a pandemic and her toddler, Vega Hardy says, “I just hope I survive until next year.”

Elsewhere in Chicago’s Filipino culinary scene, community mainstays like Isla Filipina closed their original location in April, and a new location downtown remains a secret. 42-year-old Little Quiapo Banquet and one of the four Chicagoland locations of Uni-Mart One Stop Shop (a grocery store, bakery, and turo-turo open since 1986) shuttered, according to a report from the Philippine Inquirer USA.

The pandemic has forced many to shift gears, and that includes Joseph Fontelera. He’s the executive chef at Arami, the lauded sushi spot in Ukrainian Village. He used a two-week furlough in March to uncork something new. He’s throwing a carryout pop-up called Boonie Foods at the Crab Pad in Logan Square. This is all fueled by the popularity of recipes posted on his Instagram. He made dishes like Hainanese chicken rice and hand pulled biang biang noodles.

“I was creating out of frustration with the whole situation,” says Fontelera.

With racists, including those in the government, blaming Asians — particularly the Chinese — for COVID-19, Fontelera’s video recipes gained meaning. He was fired up to share his culture and continued to post recipe stories on Instagram weekly even after his furlough was lifted.

After graduating from Kendall College, Fontelera worked at Chicago’s top restaurants including at Japonais by Morimoto and Takashi Yagahashi’s Slurping Turtle. But until his pop-up, he had never prepared Filipino cuisine in a professional setting. Encouraged by his colleagues and friends Joey Pham of bakery pop-up Flavor Supreme (who worked at Fat Rice) and Theresa Tran of Logan Square’s The Crab Pad, Fontelera began the monthly Ilocano (northern Philippine) takeaway pop-up celebrating his family’s heritage.

“[It] felt good, made me feel proud and gave me a weird feeling of empowerment I never felt before towards championing Filipino stuff,” Fontelera writes.

The cuisines of an archipelago nation like the Philippines translate to a huge diversity by region, which is not widely known among the mainstream US dining public. Fontelera’s confidence has grown. He credits the outspokenness of friends, like Pham, in helping him find his voice. Pham shared their views on appropriation, levying criticism at Fat Rice chef Abe Conlon. The George Floyd protests emboldened many marginalized voices. The protests helped Fontelera recall Filipino history and what his parents endured under President Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship in 1980s.

“That was like the lid getting blown off for me and all the feelings I’ve held inside for a long time about being extremely frustrated with this country, racism I’ve endured and witnessed, and also with the restaurant industry just came exploding out at once,” he writes.

The first pop-ups took place on June 23, and another is sold-out for Tuesday. Tuesday’s menu includes offers bagnet, chicken katsu adobo plate, beef tapa pipikaula, spicy poke or a mixed plate. The next pop-up is scheduled for August 18. Fontelera carries a new enthusiasm.

“It feels great and it feels liberating. I’m serving food as natural as I can remember and definitely not sanitized for white people.” Fontelera writes. “I don’t give a fuck what anybody has to say about how it might not be appealing to a larger audience or anything like that anymore, and it feels super good that it’s our people’s food that’s awakened that drive in me.”

A Taste of the Philippines, inside Chicago’s French Market, 131 N. Clinton Street, open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays; Curbside pickup available by calling (720) 746-8880.

Boonie Foods, next pop-up scheduled for August 18 at The Crab Pad, 2529 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Updates found via Instagram.

Chicago French Market

131 North Clinton Street, , IL 60661 (312) 575-0306 Visit Website

The Crab Pad

2529 North Milwaukee Avenue, , IL 60647 (773) 360-8332 Visit Website