Growing up around Chicago’s original Six Corners, in Portage Park, chef John Avila remembers feeling a sting of embarrassment upon opening his lunchbox at school on the Northwest Side. It’s an experience all-too familiar for many first-generation Americans.
“Like every other kid growing up in a cultural family, kids at school make fun of you,” Avila says, recounting the lovingly-made meals his mother Betty packed for him.
Avila’s background is unique as an Indonesian-Filipino-American. He hasn’t forgotten about that frustration as he entered the service industry, working at respected restaurants like Gibsons Italia and the Duck Inn.
And now decades removed from his school days, Avila is having the last laugh at Revival Food Hall in the Loop. He and his mom — holding the sacred mantle of auntie — have found themselves with a smash hit on their hands in Minahasa, their virtual restaurant that features Indonesian dishes.
After the pandemic ended his stint as a sous chef at Gibsons Italia, Avila returned to an idea he’d long muddled over — opening a restaurant with his mom. His connection to the Indonesian side of his background had been limited until recently, as Chicago’s Indonesian community is smaller than the Filipino circles where he spent most of his time. Now he hopes that Minahasa will energize Indonesian Americans in Chicago and perhaps spawn collaborations with artists and home cooks.
At Minahasa, Avila is paying special attention to regional items from his mother’s hometown of Tomohon, Indonesia in the mountains of North Sulawesi. In an effort to highlight the diversity of Indonesian food, he’s incorporated dishes from areas like Java and Sumatra as well.
It’s validating for Avila to make the food for which he was mocked as a kid. “People think it looks pretty freaky, but when I describe it to them like Asian soul food, that changes,” he says. “I could refine [the food] but wouldn’t — I feel like I’m cooking from the heart, and from my mother. I would never change anything she taught me.”
Minahasa’s menu pays homage to his mother with items like her “special-occasion” soto ayam, chicken soup that features a golden broth packed with hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, bean sprouts, shredded chicken, lime, and sambal, topped with a generous sprinkle of fried garlic and shallots. Other favorites include a sour and spicy ayam tuturaga (chicken, yellow curry, lemongrass, lime leaves) and “Mama Betty’s” egg rolls, made with a secret family recipe — the Avilas will only name chicken and shrimp as ingredients. Betty also provides sweets like ube cookies and balapis, a steamed layercake with pandan and coconut milk.
The pair originally founded the restaurant inside Avila’s house but have since landed a spot inside Revival Food Hall after the ABC 7 Chicago’s Hungry Hound Steve Dolinsky put in a good word with the hall’s ownership group, 16” on Center. The Reader’s Mike Sula has also lauded the Avilas’ operation, noting the scarcity of Indonesian restaurants in Chicago. Neighborhood stalwart Rickshaw Republic closed over the summer, which left another pair of mother-and-son collaborators — Chris and Priscilla Reed of Indonesian-Meets-Creole spot Bumbu Roux — as the sole Indonesian outpost in the city until Minahasa’s fall debut. Earlier this year, Kapitan opened in Lincoln Park bringing Peranakan cuisine to Chicago.
Avila has cooked in Chicago for more than a decade, first at hotels like the Sofitel under Greg Biggers (Tru) and at the Four Seasons under Kevin Hickey. He also helped Mike Sheerin open Taureaux Tavern in the Loop, and spent a year cooking and traveling in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the Philippines.
He’s hopeful that his homestyle approach will encourage a broader range of international options at Chicago food halls — including cuisines that unfamiliar audiences may find challenging. “I’ve been here my whole life and it seems like everyone is kind of doing the same thing: taking their cultural background and trying to dumb it down for the masses by making sandwiches or tacos out of it,” he says. “I want people to be proud of the food they grew up with.”