A Beautiful Filipino and Cuban Prix Fixe Emerges in Ravenswood

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After six years, Raquel Quadreny and chef Lawrence Letrero have taken a leap of faith in Ravenswood, transitioning tiny and mighty Bayan Ko, their casual Filipino and Cuban restaurant, to a reservation-only restaurant with a five-course set menu.

“Once you say the words ‘tasting’ or ‘prix fixe’ or anything like that, the level of expectations go up,” Letrero says.

And that’s not just for the customers. In February, during the first two days at the revamped Bayan Ko service, Letrero says his kitchen staff stared at him as he carefully plated menu items. Serving a tasting menu, and taking the time to make things look perfect, is a lot different versus laying out chicken wings or Bayan Ko’s other family-style staples, like lumpia, pancit, and ropa vieja. While the name remains the same, the new menu and service changes make Bayan Ko a new restaurant.

Initially, the kitchen crew was a little intimidated by the new menu, but after a while, their curiosity piqued. They wanted to learn from Letrero: “You’re guiding these guys’ careers — you want them to go on to the next spot,” he says.

Two smiling folks sitting at a table.
Bayan Ko co-owners chef Lawrence Letrero (left) and GM Raquel Quadreny.

Bayan Ko, which doesn’t employ a public relations firm — they handle newsletters and the restaurant’s social media accounts themselves — has somehow escaped national attention despite the restaurant’s popularity in Ravenswood. Though Chicago has seen a run of pioneering Filipino restaurants like Kasama and Boonie’s Filipino Restaurant, no other restaurant serves both Cuban and Filipino cuisine like Bayan Ko. Quadreny, who is Cuban American from Miami, and Letrero, a Windsor, Ontario native whose family is from the Philippines, have touted their culture’s similarities including their affinities for suckling pigs and how both sides of the family enjoy celebrating around big meals. During the restaurant’s life, the wife-and-husband duo has also connected with other Filipino-Cuban couples. Quadreny believes Bayan Ko has evolved into something more than what they sought to accomplish. Letrero touts his wife’s palate, having her taste dishes while he workshops them, relying on her heavily when it comes to ensuring the Cuban dishes hit.

“We’re creating new things, new dishes that probably don’t exist in the realm of traditional Cuban food or traditional [Filipino] food,” Quadreny says.

The prix fixe is $95 which isn’t cheap, but not in the upper price tier of fancy Chicago restaurants, a tasting menu cohort that includes prices of more than $200 at Michelin-starred spots like Smyth, Oriole, and Alinea. Those restaurants are closer to Downtown Chicago, and Letrero is conscious about how a pricey menu could play in a North Side neighborhood like Ravenswood. But he’s hopeful that locals can appreciate the approach his family-owned restaurant takes.

There’s an adobo octopus which is part of Bayan Ko’s new menu. It’s confit for three hours at 300 degrees which allows the soy sauce, garlic, and vinegar to mingle. It’s then cooled and grilled before serving, coming out with dots of black garlic aioli. Letrero serves it in classic traditional Spanish style and with potatoes sauteed in garlicky water, smashed and fried: “We’re not going to put rice on it,” he says. “It’s just easy to put rice on it — for both [Cuban and Filipino] cuisines.”

Then there’s the arroz caldo, it’s thinner but similar to the bowls of lugaw served at Uncle Mike’s Place, West Town’s famous Filipino American diner. The black rice gives it a nuttier flavor, Letrero says, and it’s served with a poached quail egg and lobster poached in calamansi butter: “You’re getting a pretty fun arroz caldo,” Letrero says.

The change in service and menu has perplexed some customers who occasionally show up expecting the Bayan Ko of old. Though it kills Letrero to send them away without food, he’s happy with the direction he and his wife are taking the restaurant. Even though he doesn’t consider the prix fixe straight-up fine dining, the new format is a way the chef can tap into his fine dining experience. Chef Letrero helped open Perennial in Lincoln Park and staged at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. Quadreny mentions how the changes will help Bayan Ko “get to the next level.”

The carry-out-only burger is served with fries.

Letrero is also harboring a secret off-menu item separate from the prix fixe. Bayan Ko 2.0’s menu includes an item based on ropa vieja — vaca frita — made with American wagyu tri-tip from Red Wagyu KC. Letrero is keeping trimmings to grind 4-ounce patties for a limited supply of burgers, available daily for takeout via Tock. The burger, topped with funky havarti cheese, black garlic aioli, and calamansi caramelized onions: “It kind of makes it, man — the citrusy onion? It’s different,” says Quadreny.

The burger comes on a brioche roll from Turano. There’s one more ingredient: shaved black truffles sourced by Rare Tea Cellar.

Quaderny handles the front of the house and has evolved her role to beverages, handling pairings at Bayan Ko (the wine list is 100 percent Spanish) and their upcoming second restaurant, a DIY project located a door west inside the former Glenn’s Diner, 1820 W. Montrose. For those who don’t desire a set menu, Bayan Ko Diner will be casual and offer some of the original restaurant’s signature dishes, like chicken wings, as daily specials. Don’t think of Bayan Ko’s wagyu truffle burger as a diner preview. Letrero has other plans for the diner as he schemes a double-patty Cuban-style smash melt.

Bayan Ko Diner is set for an early April opening. Come back to Eater Chicago for more on that project as the debut inches closer.

Bayan Ko, 1810 W. Montrose Avenue; open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; it’s reservation-only and bookings are available via Tock.

Bayan Ko

1810 West Montrose Avenue, , IL 60613 (773) 698-6373 Visit Website

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