Nick's Kitchen On Going Vegan And Never Turning Back

“My main worry in the beginning was: vegan and Filipino food, is this an abomination to my culture? But we didn’t really have a choice: it was either go out of business, or switch to the vegan menu. So we did it. The next thing you know, we’re running out of food and there are lines out the door! That first week we were open as a vegan place, I was in the corner crying because I couldn’t believe the support. We were at the point of closing down; now, even Colin Kaepernick comes by to eat, because he’s a vegan. Going vegan literally saved our business.”

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Reina Montenegro relaxes on a mellow weekday afternoon at a window-side two-top inside Nick’s, her Filipino vegan eatery on the border of Daly City and The Excelsior that, in just nine months, has built a loyal and rapidly-expanding following for its tasty, meat- and animal-free interpretations of Filipino classics like silog, caldereta, lumpia, adobo, and lechon kawali. Alternating her gaze between the restaurant’s view of the Cow Palace and the play of her preschool-aged daughter, Reina recounts how she develops the completely vegan Filipno menu by closely studying Filipino culinaria’s most treasured ingredients: meat and animal products.

“I haven’t been vegan for too long, but I’ve been eating pork my entire life. So for vegan versions of Filipino dishes, the taste I can pretty much nail down right away. Every single Filipino dish that I miss as a vegan, I just keep trying and trying until we get the taste and texture down. Of course, the main ones are the vegan sisig, the lumpia, the kare-kare, the pancit. But the leche flan, for me, was the proudest moment, because it took me six months to do! Lots of trial and error and frustrated moments. So I guard that recipe with my life!” Reina says.

For Reina and her partner Kenny, ensuring that Nick’s offerings appeal to a wide range of palates — not just vegans, or those familiar with Filipino cuisine — is central to their mission. Just like any restaurant that’s a mainstay in people’s rotations, Nick’s strives first and foremost to make delicious, filling food that delivers value and satisfaction to the community — and a major part of that mission includes respecting the health of the customer by presenting a menu of tempting yet wholesome options.

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“If a vegan comes here and they say, ‘Oh my god, the food is so good,’ I’m like, ‘OK, thank you, I appreciate that.’ But when a meat-eater comes here and says, ‘My GOD! I’m blown away by this!’ — then I’m crying, you know? Because to me, that’s the goal: to really tell people you don’t have to eat here and think you’re going to starve, or that you’re not getting an authentic dish because you’re eating vegan. And in the beginning, there were hardly any Filipinos. But now, we’re seeing lots of young, health-conscious Filipnos taking their families here — and sometimes they don’t tell them that we’re vegan! And when they find out, most of them say ‘My god, this is so close! I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t told us it was vegan,’” Reina says.

By providing such a thorough concept and forward-thinking culinary experience, Nick’s is uniquely positioned to nourish an entire generation of diners who are looking for much more in restaurant options than mere affordability and flavor — whether they’re Filipinx, vegan, both, or neither. In fact, for its healthy and authentic fare, Nick’s has earned a special place in the hearts of the organizers, artists, activists, and families who live and work in the SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District — championed most directly by Carla Laurel, a practicing vegan and the Executive Director of West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center.

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“Sometimes being Filipino and vegan can seem like the biggest contradiction. That is why Nick's is so important to me, because I fully identify with both. It is almost impossible without cooking food on your own to have access to Filipino food as a vegan, and that is where Nick's comes in. They make Filipino food that is true soul food and loved by many non-vegans. Trust: I know, because I take almost everyone I know there and they cannot believe its vegan. Nick's is important because food is cultural, especially Filipino food, it brings you home and lets you into someone's heart and soul and childhood. As a Filipina and a vegan, Nick's makes me feel proud that I can enjoy my favorite foods without promoting harm or injustice to anyone or any living thing. Nick's helps FIlipinos know that you can still eat amazing soul home-cooked heart warming food, while still loving yourself - mind, body, and soul,” Carla says.

 

The food at Nick’s represents something much more than simple healthy eating; it delivers a sense of caring and home, and that is not by mistake. Because although the root of the vegan menu at Nick’s is indeed the result of Reina and Kenny’s business acumen, their lifestyle as vegans originates from a much more personal practice of self-care.

 

“Kenny had a skin condition for 30 years and nobody could figure out what it was. It was this flowering thing that would come out raised and itchy, and he was suffering for so long. He went to doctors, took a bunch of pills, but no one ever said anything about food. So one day I said, ’Hey, you know what? You’re already vegetarian, why don’t you become vegan? Just see what it is, see if it’s dairy, because I read a lot about dairy.’ Sure enough, just two days after cutting out dairy, the suffering of 30 years ended. So we really believe in this stuff, you know. It’s not some gimmick. It’s who we are,” Reina says.

By simply staying true to themselves, Reina and Kenny have seen Nick’s grow exponentially since their full-time switch to their vegan menu, and are now planning to open a second location in another Filipino enclave: South San Francisco. Reina promises that the menu at this location will emphasize salads and smoothies alongside the classics from the original Nick’s on Geneva — and she’s looking forward to sharing all of this positivity with the community gathering at Undiscovered SF in August.

“I have wanted to be a part of Undiscovered since before we were vegan. It’s just so important to support the SOMA Pilipinas community, I always want to be a part of that. And when we finally became vegan, somebody was like, “Hey, you should be part of Undiscovered,” and at the meeting, everyone on the team was so enthusiastic. It’s an honor to be the only vegan food vendor on the roster, and we’re really excited about it!”

Written and edited by Paul Barerra and Cat Jimenez. Photography by Albert Law 

Q-Bert & Shortkut: Pioneers of Turntablism Keeping DJ Culture Alive
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Undiscovered SF opens for its 2018 season featuring two of Filipino America’s most enduring and well-known acts: DJ QBert and DJ Shortkut. Alone, QBert and Shortkut’s appearances would certainly qualify as headline-worthy. But in the context of the SOMA Pilipinas Cultural Heritage District, these performances by Bay Area heroes mark a reinforcement of the considerable momentum that’s seeing Filipino projects and Filipino culture gain real visibility and recognition in the current zeitgeist.

 

“Growing up around here, every time I went to Natoma Street there would just be hella Filipinos there. And my great-grandfather, he owned a record company in The Philippines, and sometimes I feel like I’m his reincarnation. So in that way, I feel blessed to be a part of something like this that’s in the SOMA and that’s so focused on our people,” QBert says.

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DJ culture is certainly one of the most recent examples of Filipinos making their mark in American society, and both QBert and Shortkut are established veterans of the game. In many ways, the early days of Hip-Hop in the Bay Area — and the influence that Filipinos enjoyed in that burgeoning scene — mirror what’s happening with Filipino and Filipino-American cultural output in the present day, especially with food.

 

“I grew up in the DJ culture, the mobile sound system era. And it being predominantly Filipino, I just thought it was a Filipino thing to become a DJ. I never thought it would become my job. So I think it’s beautiful that Filipinos are getting a lot of notoriety in lots of different industries, doing what they love — the arts scene, the food scene, cats are just taking it upon themselves to open their own spots. And we know that it’s nothing new, that our people have been doing it for years, but it’s good that we’re finally getting that recognition. That’s why someone like Q is so important — he’s like that big brother that helps people along, and it’s good to see that community building happening in other areas too,” Shortkut says.

 

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QBert is especially excited about Undiscovered SF’s gathering of wholesome, consciously-minded Filipino eateries that emphasize quality ingredients. In this way, Undiscovered SF isn’t just another festival gig for QBert, but a space for generational learning and healing about who Filipinos are as a people — a space where diverse communities can unite around music, food, and a spirit of togetherness that aims to help everyone feel healthier and happier with who they are.

 

“The food situation is getting more advanced, getting more futuristic. People are becoming more conscious of organic food and free-range meats, and sustainable food, and all the bad oils and processed foods that our people have been using for years. But now our people are waking up and we’re re-learning that our coconut oil that we have in The Philippines are healthy for us. And all these new folks opening Filipino spots can say ‘Yes, we’re doing things all natural, we’re using good ingredients,’ so it’s really exciting to see,” QBert says.

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In the same way, Shortkut — so named for not being tall enough to operate the decks when he first started DJing — appreciates the significance of an event like Undiscovered SF within the special boundaries of the SOMA PIlipinas Cultural Heritage District. A regular visitor to The Philippines, he’s experiencing firsthand the truly global movement that’s seeing Filipinx people engage in creative output across all forms of expression.

 

“I’m honored to do this, being from the Bay and being Filipino. For people to be able see other Filipinos, people who look like them, it’s huge inspiration. So I’m proud to be a part of that. And I go to The Philippines almost every other month, and seeing how that scene growing in parallel with how we’re growing in the states, it’s refreshing to see that entrepreneurship is becoming almost a norm now, for our people. Really dope,” Shortkut says.

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It might be easy to get caught in the hype of household names like QBert and Shortcut — and no doubt that’s part of the appeal for Undiscovered SF’s bill of performers for its August debut. But to do that would be to miss the point entirely of the Undiscovered SF Night Market: it’s certainly a party, but it’s a party that celebrates a people who are growing together into their full power as a community. And as a community that’s diverse in countless ways, sharing gifts of music, food, and culture with one another are the surest ways to strengthen the bonds of family and friendship that will sustain long-term growth and security as Filipinos in America.

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JT Restaurant: Feeding the Community

Walk into JT Restaurant and the first thing you’ll notice is the aroma of Filipino food - home-style dishes lovingly and painstakingly prepared by the renowned Tess.

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The sunlight filters through the front windows looking out to Mission Street as Tess finally takes a moment to sit down after the busy lunch rush to talk about her time in the South of Market. Originally called New Pilipinas when it was started in 1994, it took on the name JT Restaurant and Catering in 2010 when Tess took ownership of the establishment.

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“J stands for Juan and T is for Tess – that’s why it’s called JT Restaurant and Catering. He’s the one that helped me fix it. He’s a big help to me,” Tess says, smiling fondly at her husband, Juan, as she discusses the challenges she faced in running the business and catering service. “But I’m the one that worked for it.”

A traditional turo-turo, JT Restaurant is one of the oldest Filipino businesses in the SoMa found in the historic Mint Mall.

“‘Turo turo’ is Tagalog – it means ‘to point’ with your finger. We do that in the Philippines - point to the food. Some of the Filipinos that were born here, they don’t know why it’s called a ‘turo turo restaurant’. Filipinos don’t say ‘Oh, I want that’ – sometimes they don’t know the name (of a dish). The food is laid out behind the counter in my restaurant so I’ll explain what a dish is called and what’s in it when someone points to it. That’s why it’s called ‘turo turo’,” Tess explains.

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Over the years, Tess has witnessed how the SoMa and the Mint Mall community has changed as local Filipino business owners have moved away. She’s one of the only original entrepreneurs that still remains at the historic location. Mint Mall was once a bustling epicenter of Filipino business and culture, housing everything from the beloved Arkipalego Bookstore to the offices of the Pistahan Festival. Tess herself was the one who personally catered and provided food for the Pistahan dancers and volunteers until 2011.

“Before, Arkipalego was here. Manilatown was downstairs. And the Pistahan office used to be here, too. Luz De Leon, the first one who ran Pistahan, used to be here before she retired to the Philippines. There used to be someone who sold barongs, too. Now, not anymore. They closed their businesses. We’re one of the only original tenants left here, even though lots of Filipinos still live inside the Mint Mall,” Tess says.

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Tess – affectionately called “Ate Tess” or “Mama Tess” by nearly everyone who walks through the door – is not only the incredible chef behind the traditional, home-cooked dishes but the very heart of the community. The appeal is not just the delicious food, but Tess herself – a friendly face and a space that feels like home from the moment you step through the door.

“Tess is so nice to everyone – that’s why people keep coming back,” says Ratika, who stops in after her voice lessons to have her favorite dish - beef stew and rice. “This is the community eating place. The food feels homemade and wholesome and then Tess is so friendly so even if I’ve had a bad day, I’m gonna feel good when I come here. Community leadership takes different forms and Tess is an example of that. Food is the way to bring people together, it’s a form of comfort.”

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While JT Restaurant serves Filipino cuisine, it caters to a diverse audience: regulars who work at nearby businesses and stop in during the busy lunch hour, students from Dental Pacific who pop in after classes, and seniors who are looking for a savory meal that reminds them of home. Everyone seems to have a favorite, go-to dish from Tess’s ever-changing menu of classic Filipino dishes and desserts. Regardless of what’s on the menu for the day, the abundance of customers who walk through the door stay a little longer for Tess’s sage advice or a conversation about home, family, and life.

“Every time someone has a problem, they come here. They’ll say ‘You’re not only a restaurant, you’re Helen Vela’ – they always tell me that,” Tess says, referencing the Helen Vela novellas of the past whose advice and heart-to-heart conversations were a hit in the Philippines. Regardless of the time period, Tess’s advice - just like her cooking - stands the test of time.

“If they need advice, I’m here. I’m not perfect, but I’ll give you the real advice – the truth. I know we cannot stand alone – we need the help of others. But still, you need to have trust in yourself first. Trust in yourself that you can do it – that’s the best thing.”

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For Tess, Undiscovered SF is a chance to share her cooking with the larger community - one that she’s been a part of for decades. She cooks not only because of her love and passion for Filipino food, but for the joy and excitement that she sees in the people who sit down at JT Restaurant.

“I want them to remember, ‘Oh, there’s an event like this!’,” Tess smiles when she talks about the premiere of Undiscovered on July 21st. “I want them to think there’s something special about the day that Undiscovered happens and that’s why they want to go there. That’s what I’m always thinking about, here at JT Restaurant – I want to do something that will stick in people’s minds and that’s why they want to keep coming back.”

Written by Cat Jimenez, Photos by Abby Asuncion

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littleHONEYvee: For Love of Art and Filipino Pride

Started as a daily blog with doodles and captions to reflect her day-to-day life, littleHONEYvee has been constantly evolving since its start in 2011. Mom-trepreneur Vee Caragay is the enigmatic force behind the apparel and stationery business that aims to pass down and preserve Filipino childhood traditions.

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Originally from San Diego, Vee moved here ten years ago and has been living and creating all around the Bay Area ever since. Regardless of where she’s lived, Vee has been involved in Filipino and FilAm community organizations. Her work in the community is something that has shaped her designs and artwork.

“I've been working with and been involved with the Filipino community ever since I was in high school. I’ve always known that my work with littleHONEYvee was always cultural work, too. So whenever I can implement my culture into any designs, I will.”

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Vee is the one-woman force designing, screen-printing, and selling the eye-catching tee shirts with phrases like “Kain Na!”,  “Close Open”, and “Gigil” that resonate deeply with a Filipino upbringing. Vee’s designs are more than just her passion – they blend her love for art with an inherent pride for her Pinay roots and a desire to share Filipino culture with the world.

“There are so many customers that come to my booth and tell me, "I thought that was just something my lola and I did!” or "I thought that was just my family thing!" But little do they know that these phrases are a whole cultural thing. To know that my designs can connect people with the larger culture and be that bridge for them is awesome! I feel like my designs are gonna open up some doors for FilAm parents, especially second generation, third generation, and millennial parents, and give them the opportunity to pass down these traditions or "Filipino baby tricks", you know?” Vee’s energy and excitement are palpable as she laughs.

Each of Vee’s designs originates from her own memories of being raised by her lola who passed on the “Filipino baby tricks” that Vee hopes to share with her diverse audience. Being able to connect with her audience and to see their reactions to a familiar phrase from childhood is one of the biggest rewards that Vee gets from littleHONEYvee. It’s an opportunity to not only strengthen her own roots and culture, but to see these traditions take on a new life as they encounter new cultures and generations.

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“Giving people a little exposure to the culture or just giving them something to connect to with other Filipinos and bond over - it's awesome. It's dope to have them share their stories with me. Even with customers who are not of Filipino descent that make purchases, because they not only like the art and design, but appreciate the culture. So it's also bringing other cultures together which is cool.”

Her design style is fun and upbeat – much like Vee, herself. She emphasizes the importance of her audience’s feedback on her products and upcoming designs, showing that it’s the connection with her customers that she values the most. Armed with a sketchbook full of ideas, Vee is throwing herself head-first into the recent evolution of littleHONEYvee’s apparel line. One of her best-sellers, the “Beautiful Eyes” tee for kids, is a throwback to the Filipino practice of telling a child “beautiful eyes” to get them to batt their eyelashes and foster a sense of self-love in them from a young age.

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“It's kind of mind blowing because the smallest thing like the saying "Beautiful Eyes" - it's something that you grow up with and you take with you when you become a parent. It’s important for me to do this so I can give an outlet to these millennial/FilAm parents who might not have that access to their culture to teach their kids these traditions. As miniscule as it seems, it’s still a big thing because it’s a part of our Filipino culture and the traditional Filipino upbringing.”

For Vee, her work within the different Filipinx and FilAm communities throughout California have opened her eyes to the need for a stronger effort to not only preserve and pass on Filipino culture, but to see it thrive and grow. That’s why she loves Undiscovered SF – it’s a chance to regularly showcase her own work, and to see the new talent and goods that are emerging from the community. Make sure to catch littleHONEYvee’s new designs at Undiscovered SF on July 21st!

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“That's why it's important for me to do it - for my son. To do this work - both my designs and the community work - to expose him to the culture because I feel like it's fading away. My grandma helped raise me so I know these traditions because of that upbringing. That’s what my designs reflect - showing people that this is what connects us as Filipinos and to be raised as a Filipino.”

 

Written by Cat Jimenez, Photos by Abby Asuncion

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