Boonie Foods imagines Pinoy food past, present, and future | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Boonie Foods imagines Pinoy food past, present, and future

Former Arami chef Joe Fontelera’s pandemic pop-up settles in at Revival Food Hall.

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No, there is no vegan sausage on the menu at Boonie Foods, but I wasn’t the first person to imagine there was. 

“Yeah, I get a lot of that,” says Joe Fontelera, the former executive chef at Arami who in early March took his Filipino pandemic pop-up permanent at Revival Food Hall. 

The “Vigan longganisa” instead refers to the sausage found around Vigan, the capital city of Ilocos province in the Philippines, where his grandmother was born. Fontelera is hardly the only chef who turned from fine dining to the familiar food of their mothers or grandmothers during the pandemic, and he’s also among the growing number working to subvert the characteristically American stereotype that the food of the archipelago is a monolith. 

Take the longaniza at Ukrainian Village’s modern Filipino Kasama, which he maintains is the best in the city right now, and which is more in the style of the sausage from Pampanga province: bright red from annatto, sweet and garlicky, whereas Vigan longganisa is heavy on black pepper, soy sauce, and the cane vinegar Ilocos is known for.

Vigan longganisa is actually an exception to the general profile of Ilocano food, which Fontelera says, “in my experience is a lot more simply prepared compared to any other region in the Philippines. It’s very technique-driven versus being ingredient heavy.”

Fontelera has plenty to say about Filipino food—where it’s going and where it’s been. Both of his Instagram accounts (@joefontelera, @booniefoods) are dense with culinary, political, and personal history, but prior to last spring, not as much. “I started using it around my grandmother's birthday in 2020 when she turned 100,” he says. “As the global situation started to deteriorate, I felt the collective ‘everybody is going back to what’s comforting because it’s a messed-up time.’ And seeing what was going on with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the country, I was sick of not saying anything about it. I don’t even know who I was talking to, I was just like ‘I’m gonna post all the stuff I really like that I’ve silenced and minimized throughout the years.’ And it felt good. So I just kept doing it.”

Fontelera was furloughed briefly then worked carryout and delivery at Arami, which gave him time and space to conceive Boonie Foods—named for U.S. soldiers’ bastardization of “bondoc,” the Ilocano word for mountain, which also happens to be his grandmother’s original surname. He mounted a series of pop-ups over the summer, and then a monthly three-course dinner series for pickup out of Arami over the fall, kicking off the first menu with a “mangganada,” a salad of unripe mango with fermented shrimp paste, and chili vinaigrette; and a “loco moco longganisa,” a rice and egg plate drenched in the gravy his grandmother taught him to make when he was a kid. 

The Mexican and Hawaiian influences that crept into this menu foreshadowed another growing preoccupation with the way Filipino food is perceived in the U.S. “You see a lot of this in Chicago: immigrant food tends to be time-capsule food. It tends to look exactly like what it was when that first wave of immigrants left their country. I’ve had conversations with Vietnamese American folks who tell me that the food on Argyle looks exactly like it did in the 70s when that wave of Vietnamese immigrants left. Filipino food is exactly the same. In the U.S. there’s this pressure: if I’m gonna open a Filipino restaurant, I need to hit these different markers. I want to be part of that movement that’s pushing Filipino food forward.”

As he came around to these ideas, Fontelera was beginning to imagine what a brick-and-mortar Boonie Foods might look like. But then when the second shutdown descended, Arami went from a five-day carryout operation to daily, and Boonie Foods went on hiatus. 

“I wanted to put my best foot forward with this,” he says. “As BIPOC creators we unfortunately get turned into ambassadors for whatever it is we’re doing. Even though I don’t think that’s fair, it is kind of what happens. I decided to pause so I could do it right and bide my time and continue to manage Arami. But I guess I got into kind of a shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment. It was killing me that I wasn’t doing Boonie Foods anymore, and I felt like I really needed it.”

Fontelera describes the Revival incarnation of Boonie Foods as “Ilocos-inspired,” balancing garlic rice plates (aka silog), mostly centering on dishes such as chicken adobo, coconut milk shrimp, eggplant stew, or bagnet, along with a trio of flour-tortilla tacos swaddling the same. The latter aren’t clumsy fusion afterthoughts: the original taco he developed, the “bomba iloko,” with pickled papaya and Vigan longganisa, is based on an annatto-tinged rice flour empanada specific to Ilocos.

The most seductive dish at Boonie Foods is the sisig, a sizzling, crispy, chewy pork belly hash that appears in taco form, as silog, and in a supersized portion that feeds two. Fontelera modeled his version on that of the Sisig Society restaurant chain, which he describes as “Chipotle but for sisig.” Traditionally sisig is made with all parts of the pig head and liver, bound together with pig brain. Fontelera subs egg for the latter, not because he’s playing it safe, but because breaking down pig heads isn’t feasible given the time-sensitive requirements of a food hall, which is just one indication that Boonie Foods continues to develop into an even broader, more permanent concept. 

Fontelera is still thinking brick and mortar but “it’s constantly evolving and changing in my brain,” he says. “I really value accessibility, so the diner menu I’m running at Revival would remain for lunchtime, but then at dinnertime I’d like to do some funkier stuff, some things that would take a little bit longer than what I can pump out at the food hall. There’s more to Filipino food than just the five dishes that everybody knows.”  v

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