Uncle Mike’s Place, nestled on a corner in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, is usually bustling with folks enjoying pancakes, eggs, bacon, and coffee — typical diner fare. But a second glance reveals more: fried silog on atop a bed of garlicky fried rice, plump red loganisa, and juicy bistek tagalog. It’s a Filipino breakfast spread that might seem out of place for a diner in a Chicago neighborhood that’s densely populated with Ukrainian and Polish immigrants. The restaurant didn’t always serve Pinoy food over the course of its more than 30 years in West Town, but since introducing the expanded menu in 2008, Filipino breakfast has vaulted Uncle Mike’s from an ordinary greasy spoon to a Chicago institution.
The story of Uncle Mike’s starts long before it opened in 1991 and across 8,000 miles of land and ocean in a different diner — one that Uncle Mike’s co-founder and co-owner Lucie Grajewski is intimately familiar with. Growing up, she watched as her mom Leonida Serrano worked in their family-owned diner in Manila serving breakfast staples for bus and truck drivers fueling up for a day of work.
“That would be a leftover meal for us when we got home from school, so we always had plenty of food,” Lucie Grajewski says. “For me, that’s sort of how it started.”
Filipino food and restaurant life was ingrained in Lucie’s DNA when she moved to Chicago to attend Loyola University in 1974. One night, at a party, she met Mike Grajewski, the son of Polish and Ukrainian immigrants and a native of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village.
The two eventually married, had children, and settled in West Town where they lived in a three-flat apartment with Lucie’s mother. Lola continued to cook the foods she knew from the Philippines for the young family. She was always willing to whip up a batch of lugaw, a garlic-infused rice porridge if anyone in the house was sick.
“We called it miracle soup,” Lucie says. “Every time I got sick, my mother would make me my lugaw and for some reason, I would get better. Mike always said it’s the lugaw that cures me.”
During this time, Mike worked as a foreman for the Illinois Department of Transportation while Lucie worked at the University of Chicago Hospital as a clinical lab technologist. But on the weekends, Mike Grajewski could regularly be found helping out the elderly owners of a local diner. After it was put up for sale, the two decided to make the jump and buy it — and thus, Uncle Mike’s Place was born.
For the first 17 years, the diner only served your typical American breakfast and lunch staples — omelets, short stacks, and burgers — and things were good as locals kept coming in to enjoy meals, and the Grajewskis kept the lights on. Then the housing market crashed in 2008, and a recession that devastated the entire economy followed. Restaurants took a particularly rough beating.
“We thought we weren’t going to survive that [recession],” Lucie Grajewski says. “So Mike thought of diversifying the menu a little bit and he said: ‘What about your mom’s lugaw?’”
With nanay in mind, Uncle Mike’s customers will see a bowl of Filipino rice porridge accompany all dishes, from bacon and eggs to longaniza and garlic rice. Mike Grajewski suggested adding the meat breakfast — called silog — that includes skirt steak. That’s when they realized they had struck gold: “It became our signature dish,” Lucie Grajewski says. Today, she says that they sell around 40 plates of the silog alone per day (mind you: they’re only open for breakfast and lunch).
Mike Grajewski also packages meals with champorado, a chocolate rice porridge that resembles a small bowl of black beans. Soon, Filipino customers started pouring in to get a taste of the same breakfast staples they knew from the Philippines — reminders of a home that they left behind, but could easily access at a table at Uncle Mike’s like a divining rod to their past.
Uncle Mike’s Place helped lay the groundwork for other Filipino restaurants in Chicago, a city that’s seen an influx of young Filipino American chefs and restaurateurs making a name for themselves and their culture. The James Beard Awards have begun recognizing Fil-Am chefs like Tom Cunanan of PogiBoy in Washington D.C. Meanwhile Chicago boasts the likes of Kasama, the eatery in the Ukrainian Village that’s also the only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in the world.
The bottom line: Pinoy food is having a moment — and it’s all because of the chefs trying to bring a taste of their home to the rest of the country.
“Filipino culture is all about hospitality,” says Tim Flores, chef and co-owner of Kasama. Flores frequented Uncle Mike’s Place and other Filipino breakfast spots like Ruby’s in Albany Park for years before opening up Kasama with his wife, pastry chef and co-owner Genie Kwon. The two recently won a James Beard Award. He recognizes the role the Grajewskis’s restaurant played in establishing Filipino food in Chicago’s culinary consciousness. “It’s a country all about giving, family, and being surrounded by food. It’s what we do.”
“If you show people that you love what you do, and you’re authentic, people will love it,” adds Lawrence Letrero, founder and owner of Filipino Cuban restaurant Bayan Ko. “That’s what Uncle Mike’s has — and it’s become an institution.”
Breakfast in the Philippines has been honed into an art form — one, ironically, borne out of the trauma and violence of Spanish colonization. It’s a story told all too often throughout Southeast Asia from Vietnam to Indonesia — countries with foodways that found their origins through the subjugations and disenfranchisement of its native people. But from that pain came an intertwining of cultures and flavors that made the staples we know, love, and eat today.
It’s something that Uncle Mike’s encapsulates so well. It’s the reason you’ll find all types of Chicagoans at their tables: Working-class Filipino families dining next to River North finance bros. Teenagers watching TikTok in between bites of silog next to on-duty CPD officers. All strata of life in Chicago flock to West Town just to see what the big deal is with the skirt steak.
“I really consider us blessed because we have loyal customers that come all every week,” Lucie Grajewski says. “I see them as the same people sometimes I see them three or four times a week. They come in hungry, and they leave satisfied.”