“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