Ever tried pandan chai? It’s a hot caffeinated drink that blends paste made from the tropical plant that grows in the Philippines with the familiar ginger and other aromatics known from South Asian tea. Those are the inventing offerings in store for customers at Mano Modern Cafe, a casual Filipino restaurant that just opened in West Town, at 851 N. Ashland Avenue.
Mano specializes in rice bowls and Filipino-inspired sandwiches The cafe’s debut comes with a week left in Filipino Heritage Month which was a goal of Melvin Reyes, one of the project’s partners. Reyes hails from Cleveland and has worked in restaurants for more than a decade consulting. Eventually, instead of brainstorming ideas for other people, Reyes says he wanted to create “a Filipino corporate restaurant group that doesn’t exist.”
“What we kind of want to achieve is a Panera-style cafe where it’s something that you can eat every day and go and pick something completely new,” Reyes says.
Imagine adobo rice bowls with chicken or pulled pork. There’s also a “candy tocino” bacon cheeseburger and a maple pork sandwich. For breakfast, Reyes says they’ll use Filipino buns — pandesal — as sliders, filling them with eggs, cheese, and tocino.
Some may ridicule the project believing that international cuisine can’t be properly scaled, that it can only succeed as a mom-and-pop operation. It’s a lazy criticism that’s used when describing P.F. Chang’s and Chinese food or, more recently, the arrival of the Mexican mini-chain Tacombi in West Loop. Another layer of criticism comes from within, as immigrant groups tend to gatekeep.
“We’re not chasing after one demographic,” Reyes says. “This is something that anybody can eat and appreciate.”
Reyes is aware of that thinking, but his idea is to create a network of Filipino restaurateurs around the country where would-be restaurant owners could engage with and learn. He wants to show mom-and-pop that they could open multiple locations if they want. And what’s more important to diners is that the lumpia remains hand-rolled in Cleveland by an armada of aunties. Yes, they make the lumpia by hand, hence the cafe’s name: “We’re trying to work with some local people here to do it,” Reyes says of lumpia production.
Reyes and his cousin experiment with recipes. It’s a team that includes Zandro Zafra, Don Soriano, Mitch Reyes, and Gerald San Jose. The family owns a handful of restaurants around Manila, so there’s experience in restaurants.
The Chicago cafe builds on the momentum of the team, Pinoy Fine Foods, their first effort providing food service at Porco Lounge & Tiki Room in Cleveland. They served sliders and tacos, familiar vessels to showcase Filipino cuisine. The team is looking at other cities like Indianapolis while opening more in Pilsen and suburban Skokie. Perhaps they’ll open a Porco outpost in Chicago, which could rival Three Dots and a Dash. Chicago has become a magnet for Filipino cuisine with the world’s first Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant, Kasama, as well as stalwarts like Uncle Mike’s Place. Reyes still sees room for more.
“My goal was to target 20 Filipino restaurants within the next two to three years,” Reyes says.
Mano Modern Cafe, 851 N. Ashland Avenue, opening hours from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. this week; starting Monday, October 30, opening 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.