A Country for this Old Man

Michael Nagrant / 03.26.19

My country, the Philippines,
land of gold and flowers,
it was love that, as per her fate,
offered up beauty and splendor.
And with her refinement and beauty,
the foreigner was enticed;

Bayan Ko – a traditional Filipino song

I did not grow up Pinoy. I am, apologies to all Jews and Filipinos, a pin-goy. I am the enticed foreigner, the dayuhan, or stranger, encapsulated in the lyrics of “Bayan Ko”, the patriotic anthem of the Philippines quoted above. I am mesmerized by the majesty of Filipino food.

I have long catered parties with mountains of lumpia Shanghai, and gifted hungry, tired new parents with heaping plates of comforting pancit (noodles) and brontosaurus-sized hunks of crispy pata, deep-fried pork knuckle.

I once stole a whole bottle of banana ketchup from a now defunct Filipino fried chicken restaurant because it was so tasty. Sure, I could have gone to Seafood City or Uni-Mart and bought some like a respectable human, but nothing in a jar came close to Kristine Subido’s sauce at Pecking Order (Kristine, I’m sorry. I owe you any free condiment you desire).

I have grazed the steam tables at Ruby’s Fast Food, sopped up hangovers over lugao (rice porridge) at Uncle Mike’s, and celebrated many a weekend evening over the gooey pig candy tocino (pork belly) at Isla Pilipina.

As such, while Mexican and Italian and Indian have had their gourmet upscale moments, I have always been confused as to why Filipino food has not spun off a thousand food trucks (they have in LA) in Chicago. Although, to be fair, the current city council, its money-grubbing wire-wearing aldermen, fearful of the bricks and mortar restaurant lobby, has murdered the possibility of most food trucks. This being Chicago, and not that I condone this (says the ketchup bandit), some enterprising Filipino food entrepreneur should bribe a local pol with a lifelong supply of longganisa sausage.

Though I love Filipino food, I am a relative historical and cultural novice. My knowledge of the Philippines is mostly confined to Manny Pacquiao’s left fist and Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection. In the weeks since I’ve eaten at Chicago’s newest Filipino restaurant Bayan Ko, I’ve been walking around humming “Bayan Ko – let the rhythm take you over!” in my head. Bayan Ko, however, is not a throw-away Enrique Iglesias club jam. It is a plaintive revolutionary ballad (the name of the song translates to “my country” in English), a hopeful rallying cry sung in times of revolution. It’s a point of cultural pride that was often used to bolster opposition to the dictatorial Marcos regime.

Chicago’s Bayan Ko restaurant is itself a tiny revolution, a fusion of Cuban and Filipino culture that reflects the heritage of its owners, chef Lawrence Letrero (Filipino-Canadian), and his partner Raquel Quadreny (Cuban American).

Bayan Ko also has the coolest sign ever, a teal and hot pink neon number that would be at home in any episode of Miami Vice. The restaurant is convivial, wrapped in dark woods, and features a communal picnic-style table. It is also tinier than President Trump’s hands. You will need a reservation.

Bayan Ko however is not a fusion restaurant. Just as the defunct McDonald’s McDLT* separated hot beef from cool tomato and lettuce, Letrero keeps the cuisines segregated. Though I would love a go at a crispy pata Cubano, or lumpia Shanghai stuffed with ropa vieja, the adobe and the adobo don’t mix here.

I like the parochial execution. The traditional Cubano, silky pork shoulder and salty ham dripping with rich swiss cheese cut by the tang of mustard and pickles, takes me to church. BBQ pinchos, tiny skewers of luscious pork glistening in cola glaze, are finger-lickin’.

The shattery crust of the lumpia Shanghai stuffed with pork and scallion doesn’t quite have the garlic funk of some of my favorite versions, but that’s why they serve it with a side of Lola’s garlic sauce. I wished I’d ordered extra sauce, so I could pour it on the oxtail kare kare whose peanut gravy is a touch bland. They do give you side of shrimp paste which adds a nice funk and some salt.

Lug Lug noodles loaded with uni, scallop, coddled egg yolk, and chicharron, promise to be the noodles of my dreams, but turn in to a giant sogfest. The pork skin loses its integrity quickly and is no match for the chewy noodles. I’d probably sprinkle this dish with crispy shallots or garlic to add more contrast. The bowl is served with a slice of lemon for spritzing, but I wish Letrero would have incorporated acid directly in to the sauce.

Ten years ago, there was mostly only Harold’s, fried hard, with mild sauce.  But, now Chicago has an embarrassment of great chicken wings.  Letrero’s adobo chicken wings, glazed in zippy sweet vinegar soy caramel, a four Wet-Nap special, adds to our city’s pollo plunder.

Despite my love of Filipino food, one dish I have always struggled with is halo-halo. The combo of shaved ice, purple yam ice cream (ube), various gummies, red beans, rice, coconut, flan, tapioca, and fruit, always felt like the Pinkberry order of someone under the influence of LSD and super-primo kush.  Then again, I’m sure many native Filipinos on their first visit to Taste of Chicago would be horrified that a sweet symbol of our city is a mashup of chocolate, pistachio, strawberry and Palmer House ice cream studded with cherries and nuts, plus sherbet, stuffed in to a polystyrene-like cake cone.

I felt halo-halo had too many competing textures. Even at its best, the beans were always mushy, the shaved ice tasteless, and the flan gloppy. Letrero’s take is fucking unreal. The ube is creamier than a freshly rolled cow’s udder, and the flan cubes weep caramel like a miraculous Virgin Mary statue. The coconut shavings are like the sweet ringlets of a cherub, and the tiny al dente red beans have me considering throwing a dollop of ice cream in to future bowls of chili.  I don’t know how many miracles you need to be an official saint, but after eating this version, I am not only a halo-halo disciple, but I’m also getting on the line with the Vatican about canonizing Letrero.

Bayan Ko is located at 1810 W. Montrose Ave. in Chicago


*OMG, you’ve got to see this commercial from the 80s where the relatively hirsute Jason Alexander, aka Seinfeld’s George, wearing his best Don Johnson sleeves-rolled-sportcoat pretends he’s Danny Zuko, and pimps the environmentally disastrous monstrous Styrofoam-wrapped McDLT. I’m positive the producers of Grease 2 would have grossed more if they’d just released this commercial in theatres instead.

Also: Bayan Ko is BYOB ($5 corkage). I recommend Champagne, Gruner Veltliner, or Alsatian Riesling.