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.
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.
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.
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.”
Ruby’s Fast Food
3740 W Montrose Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
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!