Posts tagged vegetarian
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.”


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.


“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.


“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 

The Hella Healthy Mission of Oakland’s No Worries

“I was in high school when my mother had a heart attack. The doctors told her it was stress and diet-related.” Jay-Ar Isagani Pugao’s voice is stern as he relays how a deep concern for his mother’s health set off a series of events that led to his fully vegan Filipino project, No Worries.

“My way of trying to help my mom was going vegetarian. And telling her that I just wasn't going to eat any meat, because I thought that was the best thing for her. And I basically was trying to coerce her to cook healthier for everyone by going vegetarian. Which basically worked -- she started cooking healthier, she is actually the one who found the meat alternatives that I use, like all the soy proteins, the tofu, the Seitan. She is the one that found these alternatives, and so ever since she started using them in Filipino dishes -- you know, the first time she used it in a Filipino dish, I was almost mad at her, I was like, "Mom, what is this, I told you I am vegetarian!" And you know, she showed me the packet of what she was using, which wasn't meat, and I was just kind of blown away because I was eating it and it was our flavor, but it wasn't meat.”

For Jay-Ar, both the practice of cooking and the practice of not eating meat quickly evolved into more than just methods for a healthier family lifestyle -- and it’s a mindset that he’s tried to build into the No Worries ethos since he started the project as a high-schooler in Oakland, 18 years ago.


“It was just something I knew I had to spread. I was really into vegetarianism at the time -- you know, aside from being passionate about trying to get my family healthy, I was really into the benefits of being vegetarian. So you know, it was borne out of, "You know what, I need to help my family get healthy. I feel like I can get in the kitchen," but it wasn't really my passion until I started doing it. When I started doing it, it just became something I loved. Feeding people delicious and healthy food is something I love, knowing the benefits of vegetarianism, and if I can allow someone to eat one meatless meal, that's something I love. And so these are things that became a part of cooking for me, you know, so it wasn't something that I knew I was passionate about until I started doing it.”

He also stresses the evolution of his passion and mission, initially growing out of a desire to expand the palates and health consciousness of his own Filipino community while also understanding No Worries as a project that pursues positive outcomes for the entire planet.

“Early on, I was trying to prove to my Filipino community that [No Worries] was Filipino food. It was a little bit backwards because I wasn't trying to feed all people. I was trying to take care of my community by showing them what was healthy, but traditional. So I wasn't out there, care of my community by showing them what was healthy, but traditional. So I wasn't out there, like, "Hey [everybody], look! This is the new wave, this is Filipino food! It wasn't like that at all." It was more intimate. And it was a more traditional agenda, and that was just trying to provide healthy food to my community while preserving the flavors. But what I am doing now is for the health of everyone who wants it, and really for the planet, and for animals. I mean, that's just what I have evolved to.”

But arriving at this point as a Filipino vegan restaurant -- serving popular dishes like apritada, bisteck, and lugaw that are traditionally flavored with meat -- meant dealing with skepticism about his food from the Filipino community itself, a process that, while difficult, Jay- Ar says led to a progressive, clear-headed way of thinking about his restaurant and about Filipino-American cultural identity.


“The reality is I actually endured hecka criticism, and for hella long, [Filipino] people were telling me ‘That's not Filipino food.’ And sometimes I would go to family parties, you know, my mom had to stick up for me, she had to be like, "Oh, he already ate, it's OK. He already ate." You know, my mom had my back, because she knew my ultimate goal. I was hella about that life. And then, you know, things happen, I do more markets here and there, and the vegetarian community, or I would say, Americans, started to come to [mess] with me. And to them it was exotic, but it was also, like, authentic. To me, you can look at the Philippines in general, and take one dish, and it's cooked differently in different regions. So to me, that means I have the capacity to make it mine. And when you look at it in that way, then you know, then it's like, ‘This is Filipino, because I made it.’”

That certainty around the positivity of the No Worries mission, as well as its decidedly Filipino identity, has led to opportunities where Jay-Ar is able to address the initial aim of his project -- improving the health and diet practices of the Filipino-American community.



“Eventually, when I opened my restaurant in 2010, we had a big-ass following, but it was mostly non-Filipinos. And somehow, like, different Filipino news learned about us, and then I got on Adobo Nation, and then Filipinos started coming to my restaurant, bringing their grandmothers, or being like, "Yo, my tita hella appreciates what you do." And so something clicked -- or, a realization happened for me where, I thought to myself, like I can't really try to convert people or bash people in the head. It's just -- people will come when it's their time to come. And you know, I started getting a little bit larger, and San Francisco General Hospital, Kaiser, and different health clinics started calling me, asking me to do [healthy] cooking demos, because a lot of their patients were Filipino elders! So that was crazy to me, you know, of course, a lot of nurses are Filipino, but a lot of their patients were Filipino elders, too.”

And although he keeps his Filipino heritage at the forefront of what he does in the kitchen, Jay-Ar maintains that No Worries is concerned with a goal that’s much larger than what he initially set out to do, a“I am like, 18 years strong vegan -- you know, my perspective on this is I am creating tradition at this point. I don't really care anymore what people say about, "Oh, breaking tradition, or this is not part of [Filipino food]," I don't really care about that anymore. To me, if I can get one meatless meal off of your plate, I have done my job because we have saved hella gallons of water, natural resources, an animal, and your body. So you know, that is just where I am at, so, you know, if you are asking me now what I wish to bring, I just want to bring No Worries in its most authentic mission, which is to just do good for the world, man. I want to do good for your body, the planet, the animals, that's really what I want to do.”

And he’s looking forward to sharing his take on Filipino food and culture with the visitors to UNDSCVRD. 

“As a people, we are hella wealthy, we are rich with talent and culture. All of it. And to me it's an honor to be a part of it, because what I am doing is different, and to me, [with] UNDSCVRD, [we] are trying to showcase Filipinos in their dopest form, so I am hella with that.”

Sariwa's Circle of Life

“Food culture is so essential to who we are as a people.”


Seated on a shady concrete ledge overlooking the southwest corner of Lake Merritt, Aileen Suzara, chef and founder of Sariwa, explains how a career centered on community and environmental health led her back to a childhood dream of working closely with food -- and a discovery of her own family’s roots as farmers.

“With Sariwa, the seed of it started when I was very young -- so when I was eight, I told my family I wanted to grow up to be a farmer and a chef! I’ve spent the past decade-plus working on different community-based projects as an educator, working on environmental justice campaigns, and eventually, kind of just having this turning point where I knew I wanted to dive deeper into food. I knew that, in retracing my own family roots, that took the shape of both the agriculture and farming side [ ... ] I met family in Pangasinan, I saw the mango orchards, the rice fields.”

It’s a turning point that she says was equally influenced by her family’s histories as well as her professional experiences around the connections between food and people.


“I really just felt compelled by my family's lineage in agriculture, so I ended up training. I wanted to learn more about agriculture and soil and doing it form kind of a legacy perspective. I wanted to get back to the roots and ended up spending a couple of years doing organic farming and agriculture projects. Really getting to care deeply about the connections of seed, heritage vegetables, and kind of lifting up the positive aspects of [Filipino] agriculture you see -- all the hard work, all the connections to land.”

This sustainable, relationship-based approach to food found direct and natural links to her work and education in Public Health, leading eventually to a pop-up project that grew directly out of her community service work.

“I [was] with an org called FACES -- it's an environmental justice org that kind of had a climate justice campaign, and we wanted to do a community dinner in the wake of typhoon Haiyan, and that was the first pop-up dinner that I was a part of that was Filipino-themed, and we brought it together with The People's Kitchen Collective, as a collaborative. And just having over 150 people gathered together, having this food in Oakland I think sparked something for me, and I ended up taking that little seed, continuing through my work in public health nutrition, and actually doing a pop-up series while getting a Masters in Public Health.”


Aileen says that the perspectives from her Public Health background are at the forefront of the Sariwa project, engaging the question of how to run a Filipino food business in a manner that is deeply concerned, at every level, with ecological health and the public good.

“Sometimes we hear about Filipino food as something that is making our community sick because of x, y, and z stereotypes, and I just felt there is a completely different story that so many of our families have, that Filipino food is connected to place, that is seasonal, and it's not even doing it for the buzzwords, it's just what it is. And for me, it's thinking, ‘OK, what are ways to be accountable to community? How can I source ingredients that don't involve people of color and workers getting sprayed with pesticides, or getting their children sick, or getting the water polluted?’"

It's also a concern that Aileen maintains is key to Sariwa's role in honoring and preserving Filipino-American agricultural heritage.


"Being Filipino-American, we have this incredible legacy of farmworker struggles, and so if there is some way that we could bend our work to really build community and build health and build sustainability, even if it takes smaller steps to get there, I think we could get there, because it's kind of the new iteration of labor and workers that are now in the fields -- I feel that responsibility. I think what I love and am reminded by visiting family in the province, you know, that's ‘local,’ that's ‘sustainable,’ but words aren't always necessary. It's just always, ‘Of course you have to get something local, because that's what your natural environment is, and that's what’s around you.’"

The importance of respectfully weaving her project into the fabric of the existing local, natural environment is a critical part of the mission at Sariwa, something Aileen proudly stresses is expressed at every layer of the project.

“There are so many food stories, agricultural histories, right here in California that we can lift up in our cuisine, Sariwa means ‘fresh,’ and it is now a member of La Cocina, which is the incubator kitchen in San Francisco. La Cocina has been in the Mission for almost 15 years now, and essentially it's been an incubator that came about because it was the community really needed -- like it was a community need to kind of have both affordable kitchen space for entrepreneurial food businesses, but also to provide support, resources, whether its linguistic support, walking through the ropes of business, kind of just having a supportive network, and so most of the businesses that use it are primarily immigrants, primarily women of color, and/or are coming from communities of color. And I just think that really deliberate focus has been really empowering to be a part of, and right now, when I step into the kitchen, I am just blown away, the kitchen is literally bursting with life.”

Of course, this philosophy also extends to the delicious food from Sariwa, where regional Filipino specialties are thoughtfully prepared using the California harvest -- flavors Aileen and her team will be bringing to the UNDSCVRD Night Market.

“I love simple, fresh stuff. Making ensalada talong, I use these magical, miniature heritage eggplants. It's not just an eggplant is an eggplant, you have 30, 40 varieties of things, and how do you harness those flavors. And I love making different regional adobos. Some things that I really appreciate tracing are adobong dilaw which is one recipe I hope to introduce into the menu. Adobo dilaw has a soft spot for me because some of the Katipuneros had a special relationship to adobo dilaw -- it was one of their favorite dishes. So I was like, OK, let's dive into that. Turmeric is not just this new things that you see in cafés, it's an ingredient that's been used in especially South Asian cuisine forever, but it's also present in Filipino and southeast Asian foods. And ube is everywhere, but I'd love to have more fresh ube -- it's kind of a rare commodity. It's often frozen, and so I am like, ‘OK, what can we also make with root crops that we have available to us here?’ I love using different types of purple sweet potatoes. So those are things that strike me: how can you tinker with things, how can you play with the ingredients, and how can you take something simple and make it irresistible to people.”