Subo Filipino Kitchen is Albany Park's answer to a Pinoy wave | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Subo Filipino Kitchen is Albany Park's answer to a Pinoy wave 

The mother and son behind the late Three R's Filipino Cafe have regrouped at the Brown Line’s terminus.

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click to enlarge Clockwise from top left: Tosilog;  lechon kawali; pancit palabok; salmon sinigang; tortang talong, Ilocano eggplant omelet

Clockwise from top left: Tosilog; lechon kawali; pancit palabok; salmon sinigang; tortang talong, Ilocano eggplant omelet

Alexis O'Connor

Chocolate meat is on the menu every day at Albany Park's Subo Filipino Kitchen. If you happen to jump off at the Brown Line's terminus with a taste for dinuguan, the thick, fortifying, iron-rich blood stew of the Philippines—sanguineous pork butt, snout, and stomach lit up with an acidic spark of rice vinegar—you need only turn your anemic bones a half block south on Kimball Avenue. If you have an even more particular hankering for dinuguan Ilocano, a drier, less gravylike regional variant, the cooks can do that too, but only if you're having a party.

Mother and son Minda and Rod Menor targeted the heavy foot traffic around this small strip mall and launched Subo eight months ago, after they closed the Three R's Filipino Cafe, which Minda opened in Albany Park nearly 40 years ago, across the street from nearby Horner Park.

The Menors suspect theirs was Chicago's first Filipino restaurant, though according to Sarahlynn Pablo in the Chicago Food Encyclopedia, a restaurant called the Manila Village Cafe served the city's first Filipinos back in the 30s. That said, an early 80s opening clearly places Three R's among Chicago's first turo-turo ("point-point") cafeteria-style restaurants, which started popping up to attend to the wave of Filipino immigrants arriving in the 60s and 70s, many of whom found work in the health care industry during a time when the federal government was far more welcoming.

Minda, who arrived in the late 70s from the little town of Echague in the northwestern province of Isabela (where you'll find dinuguan Ilocano), started her career as a social worker but was driven to commerce, starting in the early 80s with Ric-Ron, a small grocery at Grand and Laramie on the west side, stocked with imports from back home that would interest the Pinoy nurses and techs working at nearby (and long since gone) Saint Anne's Hospital. In 1982, the year Rod was born (the third son after Ric and Ron), she opened Three R's on Montrose, just west of the river from what is now Kindred Hospital Chicago North.

Eventually Minda hired cooks and started offering ready-to-go Filipino food served from steam tables behind glass sneeze guards, in a space separate from a grocery section. It featured a constant repertoire of 20 to 25 dishes prepared for decades by her longtime chefs Felipa Perez and Elsa Alvarez. The former hails from Michoacán, but she learned to cook Pinoy cuisine from Perez, who comes from Santa Rosa, south of Manila, where the food is richer, meatier, and more reflective of colonial Spanish influence than the Ilocano fare Minda grew up on—simpler, leaner, and more focused on fish and vegetables than terrestrial proteins.

Last year, the building was set to be demolished to make way for condos across from the park. Rod and Minda, who's 74, decided to scale back operations. The long-shuttered Korean-Mexican taqueria Taco Chino presented an opportunity to reopen something a little leaner.

Subo, which means "to feed" in Tagalog, is no longer a turo-turo. The only food that faces the customer is a handful of sweets and stacked plastic containers of adobong mani, blistered garlic-fried peanuts that achieve a crunchiness so electrifying they could be weaponized.

You might think the literal lack of transparency of the day's offerings wouldn't be great for business, but Rod is practically an evangelist to a now-larger group of non-Pinoy customers joining old regulars, drawn by the counter-service storefront's higher visibility. (At Three R's you could see the food, but you couldn't see inside from the sidewalk.)

He offers samples to anyone who asks as he runs down the day's rotating menu of about 15 dishes, each available solo or in rice combos. Sometimes he gets lost in the outreach. Once a white guy patiently let him run it all down before ordering. "I was going through my shtick and he shot back at me in full Tagalog," Rod says. "He grew up in the Philippines. He said, 'I'm just messing with you.'"

Once a clever nickname to coax kids to eat their blood stew, "chocolate meat" appears in front of the parenthetical "dinuguan" on the menu over the counter at Subo. "It gets people talking," says Rod.

Other gateway foods are available every day as well. Chubby, crackly egg rolls with chicken, beef, or vegetables are deep-fried to order, as are cigarlike lumpia, their thinner, more scarfable cousins, along with garlic-fried rice-and-egg silog breakfasts supporting various sweet and marinated porky meats or tangy vinegar-marinated fried milkfish.

Certain iconic dishes are also always on hand: vinegar-braised chicken or pork adobo; menudo, in Pinoy form featuring not tripe but pork shoulder, potatoes, chickpeas, and hot dogs; lechon kawali, glassy-skinned chunks of fried pork belly to dress with vinegar or Mang Tomás liver sauce; soy-marinated beef bistec; and a trinity of classic noodle dishes including saucy, shrimp-paste-deepened pancit palabok with fresh shrimp and hard-cooked eggs, its softness set off with crunchy chicharrones.

On some days you might find sinigang, silky salmon belly or meaty whole pompano bathing in a clear sweet-and-sour tamarind broth, or pinakbet, a vegetable medley of squash, okra, green beans, and bitter melon funked up with shrimp paste; tortang talong, an Ilocano eggplant omelet, or tinola, a restorative chicken soup, its broth given body by the collagen-rich bones. Dishes not as dramatic but no less gutsy than dinuguan make a strong showing: beefy tomato-potato calderata, enriched with liver paté; peanutty beef-and-tripe kare-kare; the pork liver and tomato stew igado; and the gingery beef heart and tripe soup pinapaitan, bittered with bile.

Desserts including flan, cassava cake, and turon—plantain-and-jackfruit-stuffed egg rolls with crunchy caramel coating—are stacked on the counter, but nothing makes a bigger statement than the made-to-order halo-halo, here a towering Insta-ready soda fountain glass filled with layers of creamy shaved ice, sweet corn, red mung beans, coconut, sweet jackfruit, and jellies, topped with more ice and purple yam or coconut ice cream, toasted rice, and a side of flan.

For years food writers have been anxiously bestowing Next-Big-Thing status on Filipino food. In the last year alone, prominent cheffy projects like Ravenswood's Bayan Ko and Wicker Park's Cebu have taken strides in demystifying the cuisine for non-Pinoy. Now, without changing what they've served for decades, Rod and Minda Menor are raising its profile in their own way, one order of chocolate meat at a time.  v

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