Filipino meets Cuban at Bayan Ko | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Filipino meets Cuban at Bayan Ko 

A snug Ravenswood mom-and-pop with postcolonial synergy.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

click to enlarge A mix of Filipino and Cuban cuisine at Bayan Ko

A mix of Filipino and Cuban cuisine at Bayan Ko

Sandy Noto

The song "Bayan Ko" ("My Country") is a wistful Filipino anthem, about a beautiful land suffering (and hopefully prevailing) under colonization. On the other side of the planet, Cuba has a less oblique, more strident song, "La Bayamesa," about kicking Spanish ass in the country's decades-long wars fought for independence.

It says so much about the importance of food that a restaurant—and at its heart a marriage—can clarify the two nations' commonalities: island cultures, colonized and enslaved by Spaniards—and later, to certain degrees, Americans—and both presently suffering under newer but unrelated forms of dictatorship.

That's the conceit behind a new Ravenswood restaurant from chef Lawrence Letrero and, in the front of the house, Raquel Quadreny, children of first-generation immigrants, Filipino and Cuban, respectively. The menu features the cuisines of both countries, drawing on the foods the two grew up on, in some cases blending and innovating on them.

There are a healthy number of restaurants around town where you might have eaten Letrero's food, most recently at the Waldorf Astoria, but also Sable, Untitled, and the late Perennial, Karyn's on Green, the Refinery, and the ill-fated Tribute. He also worked a stage at Thomas Keller's Per Se in Manhattan, but nothing in that varied career comes close to the highly personal yet cheffy interpretation of soulful granny food at play in this storefront adjacent to the Brown Line, a snug space that is still unrepresented by a website but doesn't seem to have much trouble filling its 30 seats night after night.

The best, most alluring specimen of this is Letrero's interpretation of pancit luglug, sometimes known as pancit palabok, an everyday street snack of rice noodles in a shrimpy annatto-stained sauce, dressed with chicharrones and slices of hard-boiled egg. Letrero subs saffron for the rusty coloring, jiggly scallops for shrimp, and a raw yolk, which along with silky uni contributes an outrageous sumptuousness to what—at $24— amounts to the crown jewel of his menu.

It's well worth it though, especially since much of the rest of the menu comprises small portions at easier pricing, making an outing here an inevitable tour of many of the greatest hits of both cuisines. That's not to say there aren't dishes that match the luglug's richness—or far outstrip its assertiveness. Oxtail kare kare is a thick, meaty peanut-based curry with long beans, served with a side of intensely salty, funky bagoong alamang, or fermented shrimp paste. Lechon kawali is scored and crackly-skinned fried pork belly, served with the iconic liver-based Mang Tomás sauce, the fatty understory and organic minerality of each cut by sweet and tangy achara, a pickled green papaya slaw. An uncharacteristically chubby Cubano stuffed with chopped roast pork shoulder oozes with ropes of gooey Swiss cheese. Even the seemingly virtuous pinakbet, a ratatouille of eggplant, kabocha, squash, long beans, and okra, murmurs darkly with bitter melon and bagoong, a Filipino condiment made with fermented fish.

In the fried snack department, lumpia, crisp cigar-size egg rolls, jacket a surprisingly juicy pork interior. Crackling rice-flour-battered chicken wings are treated with a sticky-sweet glaze of soy, caramel, and vinegar that approximates the typical Pinoy adobo braise, while cultures collide with smoked ham hock croqueta "tots" paired with aioli spiked with Jufran, the sweet banana ketchup improvised during a World War II tomato shortage. A more straightforward rendition of ropa vieja subs the more tender shredded beef brisket for the typical flank steak.

Desserts feature a simple but wondrous flan glistening with bitter salted caramel, made extra dense with extra egg yolks, in line with both the Cuban and Filipino style; and a scaled-back take on the riotous sundae halo-halo, focused on red bean, jellied coconut, and flan crowned with a royal-purple scoop of ube ice cream that echoes the floral mural painted by graffiti artist Revise CMW, aka Chef Won Kim of Bridgeport's Kimski, another restaurant that marries two superficially disparate but complementary cuisines.

Filipino food is slightly more dominant than the Cuban at Bayan Ko, but while Letrero pulls no punches in the kitchen, Quadreny, herself a service industry vet, runs the front of the house shimmering with warmth. Together they embody everything that's right about a literal mom-and-pop, one that happens to traffic in foods worlds apart but perfectly at home with one another.   v

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Mike Sula

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Manic Mondays Frances Cocktail Lounge
November 20

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories