Antojitos Del Peru

Welcome to a taste of Peru at Antojitos Del Peru, located in Lenexa KS, a suburb of Kansas City. Owner and Chef, Norma Palomino will welcome you to experience her authentic Peruvian foods.

The Beauty of Peru

If you have not been to Peru, it is a country of dramatic and diverse people, landscape, and food. Chefs from around the world are inspired by the cuisine and how it draws from the three main geographical areas – the Pacific coast, the Andean highlands and the Amazon rain forest. Peru has 90 different microclimates. Farmers work to preserve traditional ways of agriculture.

In Peru, you will not only find Machu Picchu- one of the new seven wonders of the world, but you can trek up the highest sand dune in the world, view Rainbow Mountain, float the Amazon river which starts in Peru or visit the Cotahuasi Canyon, the deepest canyon in the world.

The road from Peru to Kansas City for Norma

The road from Peru to Kansas City was not paved with gold for Norma Palomino, owner, chef and bartender of Antojitos Del Peru. It was, however, paved with great determination and persistence. Today, she takes great pride in bringing a taste of Peru to residents of Kansas City.

Norma’s parents were from the small town of Abancay, near Cusco. They then moved to Lima, the capital.

As a young mother, Norma realized that her work opportunities in Peru were limited and would not provide the life she wanted for her family.

In 1994, she set off for the US on foot and traveled through Central America to arrive in New Jersey, where extended family members lived. This was a truly herculean endeavor, but she made it by sheer determination.

Norma’s siblings re-located to the Midwest and encouraged Norma to move to Kansas City, as they felt it would be an appropriate place to raise her children. In 2003, once again, Norma traveled cross-country to resettle in Kansas City.

Shortly after arriving in the Kansas City area, Norma was faced with the challenge of supporting her family when her husband, Autberto, suffered an accident and could not work.

Norma had always enjoyed preparing meals for family and friends, and they relished her cooking. In due course, they were persuading Norma to start her restaurant business and share the delight of Peruvian food.

So, What Is Peruvian Food?

Peruvian food is a fusion of cultures, well before fusion foods became all the rage. It is based on the cuisines of the Inca, Spanish, Africans, Europeans, Chinese, and Japanese.

One of the stalwarts of Peruvian cuisine is Ceviche. Originated in Peru, Ceviche is a wonderful combination of raw fish marinated in lime juice and ginger. Variations of ceviche are available comprised of different seafood and different condiments such as lemon juice or soy sauce.

Potatoes are an ancient staple of Peru. There are over 4,000 different varieties, and the Peruvians use potatoes in many forms. Popular dishes are Papas a la Huancaina, sliced potatoes topped with mildly spicy cheese sauce and garnished with sliced hard-boiled eggs: Papa Rellena, mashed potatoes filled with ground beef, hard-boiled egg, olives, onion and raisins, rolled in seasoned flour and fried (similar to the Spanish croquetas). Papa Rellenas are served with Salsa Criolla (julienned onions marinated in lime, tomato and cilantro). Another standard is Causa, mashed potato cakes filled or topped with seasoned chicken and mayonnaise.

Corn also figures prominently on any Peruvian plate. Yellow, purple and white are just a few corn colors of the more than 55 varieties of corn grown in Peru. Famous for their giant corn kernels, corn is served as an appetizer, part of the meal or even in desserts, such as Mazamorra Morada, a purple corn pudding.

Another well-known food from Peru that is not on the Antonjitos Del Peru menu is cuy al horno (roasted guinea pig). The cuy, or guinea pig, is a traditional dish eaten in Peru during important festivals, and served crispy complete with head, legs and eyes. It is healthier with a lot more protein and less fat than llama meat (also not on the menu).

What makes the dishes Norma prepares so delicious is her mastery in blending the commonly used Peruvian spices and seasonings which are exotic to the American palate.
These include Huacatay known as Peruvian black mint with a flavor profile similar to a blend of basil and spearmint and Paico with a flavor profile with notes of mint, citrus and pine. Lending heat to proceedings are a variety of indigenous chili peppers such as Amarillo, Rocoto and Panca.

When you visit Antojitos del Peru, you will find many traditional Peruvian dishes. Norma’s favorite entrée dish to prepare is Lomo Saltado, the national dish of Peru. This is comprised of marinated beef sautéed with tomatoes, onion and soy sauce. Served with French fries and rice, this dish is a true testament to the fusion of Amer-Indian and Japanese flavors.

Another classic dish is Aji de Gallina, shredded chicken in a spicy sauce made of crushed walnuts and Parmesan cheese.
And, to end the meal with a scrumptious dessert, Norma’s favorites are Leche Asada and Alfajor. Leche Asada is a delicious custard style dessert made with milk, sugar and eggs, while Alfajores are delicate cookies made with flour and cornstarch and filled with dulce de leche.

And no, Norma has not forgotten about the drinks. If you move to the bar, an impressively crafted Pisco Sour is on tap. Pisco is a Peruvian grape brandy and is mixed with lemons, sugar water, egg whites, ice and finished with bitters to make a Pisco Sour.

However, if you are more interested in non-alcoholic drinks you can find a number of options such as Chicha Morada, a Peruvian beverage made from purple corn, sugar and spices, Jugo de Marucaya or passion fruit juice, Inca Kola a yellow soft drink and Postobon, an apple flavored soda.

The Path to Perfection

Norma is quite modest about her journey. Her initial food experience began in Lima where she worked in an Italian pastry shop for 12 years and took baking classes. Norma makes all the desserts served at her restaurant!

With encouragement from her family and friends, Norma (Normita to friends) decided to share her love of Peruvian food.
In 2014, she started her restaurant in a much smaller space. She quickly discovered the need for a bigger space for large family gatherings and that she had an unaccommodating landlord, so it wasn’t long before she was looking for an alternate venue.

Moving in 2017, the restaurant she has today is decorated with Peruvian style colors and décor. Norma’s focus was to create a warm and welcoming place where her guests would feel comfortable experiencing a taste of Peru.

When you walk through the door, you will find a melting pot of Kansas City locals – people from Central America as well as many Norte Americanos. During lunch, patrons come from neighboring businesses. During weekend evenings, you can often find it looking like date night. And, Sundays, large family gatherings following church are common. Sometimes, Norma reports, the families are standing outside just waiting for the doors to open.

She is passionate about every Peruvian dish created. The food is made each day from scratch, using the finest ingredients. It may take a little more time to prepare a favorite meal, but it is worth the wait!

This determined lady does not stand still and has yet another Peruvian restaurant concept in mind. Her children, Thomas and Susanna, work with her today. Thomas is encouraging Norma to open an upscale, gourmet concept which he will help operate. So, you should expect this new concept to open sometime during 2020. In the meantime, Norma is frequently asked if she would franchise her concept so others across the country could enjoy her creations. At the moment she is content to keep her focus on the Kansas City market. For others who might contemplate opening a restaurant, her advice is to just tell yourself you can do it and then do it!

Norma loves to introduce Peruvian food to those who have not experienced it. She is happy when her guests walk away happy and return for another taste of Peru. You can be sure I will be one of the returning guests!

Norma, daughter Susanna and granddaughter Amy

Norma, granddaughter Amy and grandson John Paul

Norma and son Thomas

Visit:
Antojitos Del Peru
7809 Quivira Road, Lenexa KS 816—220-1723
Hours:
Monday - Closed
Tuesday – Thursday 11am - 9 pm
Friday – Saturday 11am – 10 pm
Sunday 11 am – 9:30 pm


About the Author
Susan K Spaulding loves to share the stories of others and believes that each of us has a powerful life story to tell. Sharing the stories of immigrants who are now successful restauranteurs is inspiring and mouthwatering. Susan is part of a multicultural family with a Japanese brother-in-law, a Canadian sister-in-law and a Peruvian sister-in-law along with the many multi-cultural family members. She enjoys giving diversity a voice and making connections around the globe.

Sources: Norma Palomino

The Taste of Africa

If you’ve ever visited the city of Syracuse, even briefly, there are a couple of things you would likely notice right away: the school spirit at Syracuse University, and that lake effect is not a myth. Something you may not readily notice, however, is what a diverse and eclectic city Syracuse is. People from all over the world have migrated here and many have opened stores and restaurants that highlight their culture. One such restaurant is Taste of Africa in north Syracuse just outside of downtown.

Walking in, you are greeted by lively African hip hop music and a decor that showcases the African people, exotic animals and the culture. The restaurant opened for the first time in 2011, when owner Ullys Mouity decided to bring more of the flavor of the African community to Syracuse. Unfortunately, with the little experience Ullys had in the restaurant business, Taste of Africa did not succeed the first time around. Undeterred, Ullys sought help from his family, and in 2017, re-opened to find success.

Ullys was born in the Republic of Congo and lived there until he and his family fled to Gabon during the war. As a child in Congo, he watched his mother and grandparents cook for the family. Ullys explained that while the elders prepare the meals, everyone has their role in the kitchen. He and his siblings would go to the market for fresh produce; and while his mother cooked, they would hand her anything she needed. Ullys didn’t start actively cooking until he moved to Gabon. Here, he had a dear friend who had lost his mother and father in the war, so as the eldest child he had to take over to cook for the younger siblings. Ullys saw this as an opportunity to bring friends and family together. He and his buddies would go to each others’ homes a few times a month and cook together. Through these acts of kindness and friendship, he learned how to prepare delicious meals for large groups.

At the age of 21 Ullys moved to the United States, pursuing an education in graphic design and architecture from Onadoga Community College. He began working at an engineering company here in Syracuse and still works there today. In his down-time, Ullys works alongside his wife, his brother, and his four children in the family-owned restaurant. Ullys recognizes the importance of family, and teaches his children much about their heritage and their cuisine. He and his wife share most of the cooking at home, but make sure their children have a role as well, just like he did growing up.

We started with the plantain appetizer. The waitress, who is also Ullys’s daughter, said they are a must when you come to Taste of Africa. The plantains were perfectly crunchy on the outside and beautifully soft and pillowy on the inside (like your most ideal French fry, only thicker). The balance of sweet and salty was perfectly accompanied by their special sauce called Pilli-Pilli. I asked Ullys what’s in this sauce that makes it so good and he told me it’s made from small peppers blended with fresh tomatoes sautéed in vegetable oil and a “special ingredient” he just wouldn’t give up no matter how hard I tried to find out.

As a pescatarian, I had to try the fish special, Samaki, which is a grilled tilapia with tomato sauce. The fish was thin, flaky, and had a slight crunch from the griddle on the outside, but moist and tender on the inside. The tomato sauce was slathered over the top, and had a rich deep umami flavor. I just had to know what was in it. Ullys revealed that it’s an easy sauce of tomatoes, garlic powder, onion powder, tomato paste, and a seasoning called Sazon you can buy at the store. He gave me a packet to take home and you better believe I am going to use it in my next dish, whatever that may be, because it is just that good.

Luke, the meat-eater, ordered the beef shish kabobs. Now, this man loves a good piece of steak, so when he told me the kabob was cooked with a perfect sear on the outside and a generous amount of seasoning on the outside, I had to believe him.

Finally, what I deem the most important part of the meal, are the sides. Luke and I shared an order of cassava, fried rice, and chapati.
Cassava is made from Cassava leaves or yaka leaves, pounded up with onions garlic, sardines and peanut butter. Trust me, I was surprised when I heard this list of ingredients. But, it was wonderfully salty, slightly briny, and savory.

The fried rice here is seasoned with the same seasoning as the tomato sauce, Sazon.

And the Chapati is a light wheat flat bread brought by Indian immigrants to Africa, similar in consistency to a thin pita. It was lightly flavored and a great vessel for soaking up all the saucy goodness.

Taste of Africa is a unique and satisfying culinary experience. From the distinctive cultural ambience to the rich and abiding flavors, you can taste the deference to family and African tradition in every bite. I was heartened to have discovered this rare little treasure right in my own city and eager to uncover more of them.

Visit
Taste of Africa
820 Danforth Street
Syracuse, NY 13208
United States
(315) 378-4152

About the author:

Tatiana Inkeles is originally from South Florida and currently living in Syracuse New York. She graduated from  Syracuse University in May of 2019 with a bachelor of science in Nutrition sciences. She is a huge foodie and loves finding new places to eat. She'll be applying to medical school this spring and can't wait to find more places to eat near her new school!

https://www.linkedin.com/mwlite/in/tatiana-inkeles-b90351136

Selam Ethiopian Kitchen

Upon entering Selam Ethiopian Kitchen, the richness of the rosemary in the air is rivaled only by that of the red walls that define the cavernous dining room. Groups gather around large, round dishes of injera adorned with delectable toppings of meats, vegetables, and legumes.

For those unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine, injera is a large type of sourdough flatbread upon which thick stews, or wat, are served. This style and method of eating is, to say the least, hands-on. Diners take the injera in their hands, which the chef referred to as “natural forks,” and scoop bites of whichever wat strikes their fancy. As if a painter’s palette, the injera is host to a range of colors, aromas, and – you guessed it – flavors: orange lentils, green lamb, brown chicken, and white cheese decorated my dish, though the palette’s contents are at the artists’ discretion.

I was greeted by the restaurant’s chef and namesake, Selamawit “Selam” Abebe, and owner, Solomon Abebe. They are a lovely couple, both warm and welcoming. As I had fasted in anticipation of the meal, the savory fumes taunted my appetite – onion, peppers, and seemingly countless spices made for a very distracted interviewer. In speaking with Solomon, it was his attention to these ingredients (and authenticity) that blew me away. All of their vegetables are organic, and all of their spices (and even butter) are sourced from Ethiopia itself. Especially considering that meat is often consumed raw in this cuisine, it must be high-quality and fresh. And who better to source it than an experienced butcher such as Solomon. Upon entering the establishment, one passes a small butcher’s window that he still operates, carving meats for both the customers their own kitchen. To quote Solomon, “this is the best food you can get in the whole United States.”

In addition to (and a function of) top-shelf ingredients, Solomon takes pride in their expert preparation, particularly that of the injera, made of fermented teff flour and indubitably the staple food of Ethiopia. If prepared improperly, this bread may result in bloating and an upset stomach, but certainly not at Selam Ethiopian Kitchen. Indeed, customers, particularly the robust market of 20,000+ Ethiopians in the area (according to Solomon), often stop by to pick up only the bread to take home for their own cooking and pleasure. All in all, this competitive advantage relative to other local establishments is not a result of fortuity, but rather experience, expertise, and extensive due diligence. Solomon recounted that prior to opening shop, he and his wife surveyed other restaurants in the area and conducted their own market research, rating every dish at every restaurant on their radar. As such, it’s no surprise that they’re well-aware of their superior quality, vending their bread both locally and internationally.

Like many immigrants to the United States, Solomon’s story is one of determination and hard work in the face of adversity. Aged 23, he fled Ethiopia in 1985 after famine struck the country in 1983, displacing millions internally and thousands externally. As a refugee in Sudan, he worked as a cook at the U.S. Embassy, teaching himself to cook what he described as “American food” – omelets, casseroles and the like. At 32, he fled Sudan in 1996 as civil war ravaged the country, arriving in Chicago and settling in the Uptown area. Solomon enrolled in pharmacy school, driving a taxi when his studies permitted. All the meanwhile, he and Selam enjoyed cooking at home, eventually deciding to open a small butcher shop. It was there that Selam began to cook more and more for their customers, inspiring the couple to open a restaurant after receiving glowing feedback and ringing endorsements for 7 years. All the meanwhile, the couple grew their family from 2 to 6, their children now aged 19, 15, 8, and 4, helping around the restaurant on occasion. Selam Ethiopian Kitchen has now been open for a couple of years, growing its customer base of those seeking healthy and authentic food that meets Solomon and Selam’s highest standards.

Discussing food and cooking with Solomon, I saw his face light up as he boasted (as humbly as one can) that their food is “very healthy [and] very delicious.” Indeed, food is about much more than satisfying hunger in his eyes: “we try to make happiness by eating our food…you have to get something out of it…happiness and health.” When asked about the challenges of running a restaurant, a notoriously tricky business, Solomon remarked that it is an all-consuming occupation that requires attention all day every day. That said, there’s no doubting his dedication, ability, and care to bring a piece of his homeland to his new home here in Chicago.

It was a distinct pleasure to meet and speak with Solomon and Selam. For anyone interested in a varied platter (as I was), they offer a diverse “meat sampler” with doro wot, yebeg wot, yeberé wot, and zizil tibs, all of which were delicious (their signature dish is their short ribs, or goden tibs). I can’t recommend enjoying their exceptional food enough!

Visit:
Selam Ethiopian Kitchen
4543N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640
773.271.4300

Hours
Tuesday - Thursday: 11AM - 11PM
Friday - Sunday: 11AM - 2AM

The author is a Chilean-American son of an immigrant and bona fide foodie.

Que Chevere

No matter how early I get to Que Chevere, there always is a line of hungry pedestrians waiting outside for arepas. Often, it is the only food truck with a line of customers during the early stages of an event. No matter the weather; rain, intense Arizona desert heat, or the cold, Que Chevere has always been well worth the wait.

Their Story

Que Chevere is a family owned and operated Venezuelan food truck. They opened in 2015 and have been serving the Valley since. Maria and Orvid are the married duo behind the food at Que Chevere. Maria immigrated from Barquisimeto, Venezuela in 2003, and Orvid is a second generation American. Maria originally came to the US to participate in a high school exchange program for a year. At the end of her exchange year, Maria decided to stay in the US as Venezuela’s situation deteriorated and the economy crashed. She then decided to stay for college on a student visa. It was during her time at Mesa Community college that she met her husband and now chef team-mate, Orvid.

Prior to starting Que Chevere, both Maria and Orvid worked desk jobs. MAria worked in graphic design, while Orvid dealt with mortgages at a bank. During their time together, Orvid fell in love with the savory latin food that Maria and her mother made. “By 2005 she started cooking for me, every year after that I’d tell her, ‘Start a restaurant’.... like for ten years”. Orvid said eventually he decided to drop everything and do just that- start a restaurant. Orvid had full faith in the potential of Maria’s family recipes, so much so, that he pulled out his 401k, quit his job at Chase and purchased a food truck to start selling her arepas.

In the beginning, Orvid and Maria were encouraged to sell something “familiar” to their audience along with their arepas. Many people recommended tacos or even changing the ingredients to a more Americanized style. Despite criticism, Maria and Orvid chose to stay true to their roots and create true Venezuelan food. Today, they continue to use the same family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Orvid expected Maria’s savory Venezuelan food to sell, but what neither of them were expecting, was the impact they’d have on Arizona’s Venezuelan community. Orvid found that no matter what event they participated in, nor what part of Arizona they went to, Que Chevere always attracted a group of Venezuelans. Due to Arizona’s lack of a cultural center for Venezuelans, Que Chevere has become a sort of traveling “Little Venezuela”. Truly becoming the heart of Arizona’s Venezuelan community.

The Food

Que Chevere offers a variety of arepas and other traditional Venezuelan food and drink. The arepa is a traditional bread made from corn flour, water and salt, then cooked ‘till the outside is crispy but still has a soft interior. It is often paired with fillings like perico; a tomato and egg mixture, beans and meat, and fresh cheese.

I first ordered the Arepa Reina. The traditional arepa is stuffed with a savory chicken spread and a large helping of mashed avocado. It is then served with a side of salty-sweet plantain chips. A humble, but delicious meal.

Next, I ordered the Arepa Pabellon. With this arepa, every bite is a symphony of flavors. The arepa is packed with black beans, queso, pulled beef and plantains. The beef in this arepa was soft and juicy, and oozed out each time I took a bite. The best part of this arepa is the way the savory flavor of the meat and beans hits you first, but as you bite there is this amazing sweet aftertaste from the plantains. Its is nothing short of heaven.

It is impossible for me to go to Que Chevere and not order their tequenos, which is just one of many secret menus options. Tequenos are best and most easily described as Latin America’s mozzarella stick, but so much better. With tequenos, queso de mano (a venezuelan fresh white cheese)is wrapped in dough and then fried to a golden crisp. They are crunchy on the outside and have a cheesy salty-sweet taste. Here it is paired with a specialty sauce, but Maria and Orvid’s tequenos are just as good on their own.

The last thing I ordered from Que Chevere was their homemade Chicha. Chicha is similar to the Mexican Horchata in that it is a spiced rice milk drink. Chicha, however, is much thicker and is heavy with a cinnamon flavor. The sweet rice milk is served chilled on ice and was the perfect way to end my meal from Que Chevere.

The Future for Que Chevere

What started off as nothing more that a man's love and belief in his wife’s cooking, has grown into a widely loved food hotspot here in Arizona. It is with great pleasure that I have been granted permission to reveal that Maria and Orvid have recently purchased a restaurant front in Downtown Mesa, and will be opening in early 2020. Their storefront will feature items previously only available on the secret menu such as Venezuelan hamburgers, empanadas, cachapas and pepitos. They will continue to operate the food truck ,but will now also serve out of their new brick and mortar restaurant, spreading their culture and cuisine to more people.

Visit:
Que Chevere
Que Chevere’s weekly stops can be found on their website and Instagram.
Instagram: @quechevereaz
BRICK AND MORTAR COMING SOON - 142 W. MAIN ST. MESA AZ

About the Author
Joslin Renee is a journalism student at her local community college. She has always had a love for other cultures and the people that come with it. Joslin aspires to become to become an investigative journalist and political activist in the future.

Ruby’s Fast Food

Meeting the Owners

Walking towards Ruby's Fast Food on a cool but sunny November day in Chicago, the neighborhood is unassuming and quiet, with the exception of the crackling leaves and passing cars on this main street. I arrive at my destination, walk through the entrance, and find myself in a bustling operation. The air is warm and filled with the sounds of cooking in the kitchen, the smell of garlic, and a variety of seasonings that tempts the appetite. There is a line of people waiting to place their orders at the counter, and all but one solitary table is filled with diners cheerfully chattering and enjoying their meals. The interior of the restaurant is the polar opposite of where I was a moment ago.

While busy, the owners, Nickie and Arnie Rodica, are promptly taking the orders and packaging them for their customers with consummate ease. The two men are brothers, and took over the restaurant from their late mother, Ruby, in 2018.

Manila

Born in Manila in the Philippines, Ruby's captivation with food was inherent through her mother's involvement with cooking. Her mother had several canteens in the city where she would lead, manage, and cook for the local workers. “A fresh meal for good prices” said Nickie. Eventually, Ruby followed in the steps of her mother. There was a small kiosk in front of the house where they lived, and Ruby went on to use that space to make and sell meals everyday.

While in the Manila, Ruby met her husband Florante Rodica. “I'm not sure when my parents met, but I know they lived in the same neighborhood, somewhere along the line one chased the other” Nickie says with a laugh. After some time, Ruby and Florante's family grew with the addition of Arnie, their eldest son, and Nickie.
Florante was 1 of 13 siblings, and once his older siblings moved and settled in the US, he and Ruby decided to do the same. “Back in the day, that's how it worked” said Nickie, “the first sibling comes, and then the others follow.” So in January of 1991, the Rodica family started their journey to the southwest suburb of Westmont, Illinois to join the rest of their family. Nickie was 7 at the time, and while both his parents spoke English, Nickie did not. “I remember we were in the airport in Narita, Japan going to the States, and I wanted to tell my dad [in English] I was hungry, and the phrase that came out of my mouth was 'Dad, eat me'” Nickie recited lauging. “They would start laughing and I would ask 'Why are you laughing? Eat me!' and dad asks 'Why would I eat you?'” Even though Nickie did not speak much English then, the prospect of life in the US that was exciting for him, did not turn out to be so easy for his parents.

Westmont

The transition from the Philippines to Illinois was difficult for Ruby and Florante, firstly due to the lack of tropical weather, having arrived in a snowy January (Nickie was excited to see snow for the first time), but also due to leaving friends and family back home. Finding fulfilling work also proved to be a challenge. Since Ruby was helping her mom with the canteens in Manila, she was not sure what to do once she arrived. She ultimately looked for work wherever she could find it and over time worked in a number of places including a dry cleaning business, a fabric store, an office, and did some CNA work. During this time, Ruby would bring food to work where her coworkers would sample, and it became a hit! Those that tasted her food would ask her to prepare some items for them and would ask how much she would charge. Ruby never really enjoyed her 8 hour job, and with comments like “Why don't you open a restaurant?” she saw this as a chance to test the waters and do home catering on the weekends. Things were starting to take a turn for the better.

Nickie, meanwhile, was adjusting well. He took an English as a second language course in grade school and had good grades overall. It was when he was in the 6th grade that his interest in cooking developed while taking a Home Economics class. “The teacher's name was Mrs. Love,” said Nickie “She liked me and how I did in the class. So I would say 'If you like me, I love you!'” A good pun for an 11 year old! In the class, the students had the opportunity to bake cakes, cookies, and brownies. And as weeks passed, the tasks changed and got more complex. The class was his introduction to cooking first hand, and soon he starting experimenting on his own. “That's how I got into baking, cooking... frying the first egg ever, to frying hotdogs, mostly frying at first” said Nickie. “Then I made my first Pancit [a Filipino Stir Fry Noodle dish], not the best, but practice makes perfect.” Nickie has continued to hone his newfound interest ever since.

Over time, the family decided it was time for another move, this time with their eyes set on Chicago. In the summer of 1997, after Arnie finished high school and Nickie grade school, they set forth on their next adventure.

Chicago

The move to Chicago was a positive one for the family. Nickie and Arnie were doing well in school, and Ruby and Florante continued to work full time to support the family, but cooking was never far from Ruby's mind. At the time, Ruby and Florante did their taxes at a business located near the intersections Montrose and Ridgeway Avenue in the Albany Park neighborhood. When visiting this business, Ruby noticed a Fast Food Burger restaurant across the street. One day, during another of her visits, Ruby saw that the restaurant closed and the space opened up. Ruby saw this as a sign. There were not many Filipino restaurants in the city, and with her success catering on the weekends and the positive feedback, she decided to give it a try. After all her hard work, and working long hours to save up, she was finally able to open her restaurant, and called it Ruby's Fast Food.

Ruby's Fast Food, The Beginning

Ruby's Fast Food saw immediate success but it was not without the help of her family. Florante, who was working in a clinical lab at the time, noticed that Ruby needed help at the business, and she agreed that it would be best if he joined. He soon began assisting with the cooking, and putting his own style into some of the recipes.
Nickie, who was one of the first students in Chicago to get a full tuition scholarship through The Posse Foundation [a program that rewards students in inner city schools that apply themselves] went on to complete his Bachelor's Degree at DePauw University in Biochemistry and Spanish in 2005. “There was some expectation for me and my brother to become a lawyer or a doctor. So my thought was to pursue one of those” said Nickie. After college, he also began helping at the restaurant part time first washing dishes, moving up to food prep, and then actually cooking. He learned a lot from his parents at this point watching how they would taste everything, learning to grasp the flavors, how to cook for a large group of people, and watching his parents style of cooking that overtime developed into his own.

Nickie intended to go back to school and was preparing for the MCAT's (Medical College Admission Test) to pursue Medical Sciences but he was not able to focus on studying since he was working at the same time. “The family business became more of a priority” said Nickie. He had mixed feelings about this at first, whether there was the obligation to be involved in the family business, his hesitation due mostly to his studies. At the same time, he did want to be involved because he enjoyed cooking so much. “Now, I wouldn't even question it” said Nickie, “I like being here, being in the kitchen, preparing the food, making sure things are done right, customers are eating well, and enjoying themselves.

The family's hard work did not go unnoticed. In 2010 and 2011 the restaurant was featured on several shows including The Cooking Channel's “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” WGN's “Chicago's Best,” and the Travel Channel's “Bizarre Foods,” creating international exposure and attracting visitors from places like Greece and Singapore. “I remember that one night me, mom, and dad were sitting down and watching Bizarre Foods, an episode about Filipino food, thinking how great it would be to be on a show like that” said Nickie, “little did we know that 4 years later we would be contacted by a producer on the show.”

As time went on, Ruby's health began to decline, and she needed Nickie and Arnie to take on more responsibilities at the restaurant. She continued to take more of a step back from the restaurant until she knew that her sons could fully run the business on their own. “Today, my parents are no longer with us unfortunately” said Nickie, “I think my mom's plan was always to open a restaurant once she got to the US, and I think the goal for the restaurant was to provide for the family, so that my brother and I had something, and to provide to the Filipinos in the area. My mom was kind of a philanthropist. When she would earn from the restaurant, sometimes she would donate to the churches, or to the Philippines, to those she thought needed help.

“My mom was a tough person and besides me, Arnie, and my dad, she was on her own. But she persevered and did what she wanted to do, enjoyed cooking, and now I'm doing it how she taught me” said Nickie, “I'm very thankful for her. Those who do move to the states have that common idea of finding the American dream and with the restaurant she was able to achieve that."

Ruby's Fast Food, Today

Nickie and Arnie officially took over the restaurant in 2018. There are 5 people total that work at the restaurant including Nickie and Arnie. “Everyone pretty much knows what they have to do” said Nickie, “the guys come in at 8 [am], I come in at 8:30, and we have a short meeting to discuss what the plan is for the day.” Once the clock strikes 12, the restaurant is open for business. Most of the clientele are regulars whom Nickie and Arnie know on a first name basis, and while they are in line, they know more or less what they are going to order. They've even grown close relationships with some of their customers over the years. “We have a customer, she's like a grandma to me” said Nickie “she likes to cook too and she shares recipes with me because she says that none of her kids want to do it.” They also see new customers on the weekends mostly credited to advertisements and the television programs they were featured in. They receive an average of 250 orders per day on the weekdays, and double that per day on the weekends (not including weekend catering), a testament to their continued success.

And understandably so! Nickie brought over the first couple items which were “Bistec,” braised beef cooked with sugar, soy sauce, onions, and lemon, and “Chop Suey,” green beans, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, shrimp, and mushrooms. The beef was soaked in a rich sauce and was so tender you could cut with a spoon! The flavor was savory with a sweet undertone from the sugar. The vegetables from the Chop Suey were perfectly cooked through with a surprise light seasoned broth at the bottom, a combination of the vegetables and shrimp.

Next was “Garlic Rice,” white rice sauteed in fresh garlic finished with fried garlic and scallions, with “Catfish Nuggets,” catfish fried in a seasoned batter, “Chicken Curry,” chicken cooked with Japanese curry, coconut milk, potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers, and “Lumpia,” fried ground pork spring rolls seasoned with garlic, salt, and black pepper, served with a side of “Suka,” a spicy vinegar sauce, and “Sweet and Sour Sauce.” The garlic rice, while simple in theory, was flavorful and executed so well that it could be eaten on its own. This paired well with the remaining items. The catfish was light with a crusty salty batter, the lumpia wrap was crisp encasing a juicy and chewy ground pork, the chicken curry, despite looking heavy, had a delicate curry flavor, tender chicken, and sizable vegetables that complimented the overall texture.

After that was the “Pancit,” a crowd favorite. Pancit consists of stir fried thin rice noodles sauteed in garlic, soy sauce, oyster sauce, with pork, shrimp, and vegetables, served with a lemon wedge. The noodles were soft and lightly coated with oil, the pork and shrimp were hardy and maintained their respective flavors, while the vegetables added a crunch that brought the whole dish together.

We topped it all off with “Halo Halo,” a sweet drink made with sweet white and red mung beans, sweetened jackfruit, coconut, coconut jelly, shaved ice, evaporated milk, toasted sweet rice, dulce de leche, ube [purple yam] paste, and ube flavored cereal. A mixture of textures that could not be more favorable! If you have a sweet tooth, Halo Halo is the perfect drink. “Arnie was telling me that in the Philippines, each household would have their own version of Halo Halo, and people would go to other houses and pay whatever to have their version” said Nickie. The best way to eat is to mix everything.

“We are one of the few places that are authentic” said Nickie. “This is a lot of the food grandma and mom would make back in the Philippines. After reading the reviews online, that's one of the most common comments you see, that the food is authentic and people like and enjoy coming here- they feel at home.”

I experienced that first-hand speaking to some of the regulars during my time at the restaurant. “I come here at least twice a week!” said one of the diners, a middle aged man who is originally from Manila, enthusiastically. “ When I come here I buy a lot, that way when I go home, I don't have to cook, I just put in the microwave and I'm done! This is the best Filipino food in the city!” He continued with a laugh “I used to live all the way across town and moved two blocks away so I could be closer to the restaurant!” Another diner, an elderly woman also originally from Manila, agreed from across the room “Yes, the food is the best! I like to cook but sometimes I get so tired and it's easy for me to come here and get good food” she continued “This is my hobby, eat, eat, eat!” To which we all agreed! The feeling of home continued when I asked Nickie and Arnie to get together for a photo. The woman I was speaking to earlier commented “Aren't they handsome? You should see them in a suit! Not in this thing, this apron!” she says endearingly “But they are both handsome men!”

Nickie does have his sights on other ventures. One goal is for the restaurant to become bigger. He'd like to double the amount of seating, and the size of the Kitchen. He is also considering opening another space somewhere in the city, a diner with a “Filipino twist,” because of his love for Filipino food (which always puts a smile on his face) and breakfast foods. Whatever the next step may be, he wants to maintain the integrity of the food. But another thing that's important, Nickie said, is that his mom told him to never leave this space. “She was superstitious in the way that she thought, and if the luck is there, you stay” referring to the restaurant's success at that location. “If you want to experience having a Filipino grandmother, what it feels like to have a home cooked Filipino meal, come here” said Nickie, “It will fill you up, touch your soul, and make you smile.” I wrapped up by asking Nickie what other exciting things are coming up for him, his response “I kind of wish my parents had more kids and I want a big family” he laughs “but this coming new year, I'm planning on getting a puppy, so I want to start with that and see how it goes.”

Visit:
Ruby’s Fast Food
3740 W Montrose Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 539-2669

Hours:
Monday - Closed
Tuesday through Friday - 12:00pm to 7:00pm
Saturday and Sunday - 11:00am to 7:00pm
Holiday Hours Vary

About the Author - Leslie Fabian
Leslie has a long background in the hospitality industry and initially started in the industry with the hopes of eventually opening a restaurant. That is still the case, but in the meantime, she spends her time dining at area restaurants, trying new foods, and baking. She is also working on starting a Food Blog called “All Things Eats” where she showcases area restaurants, makes baking videos, reviews new food products, and generally talks about all things eats!