The Filipino cuisine at Subo may take some getting used to, but the south-seas flavor is worth getting to know
World travel is difficult and requires great patience, as anyone who has taken a plane this decade can attest. It can be just as difficult to move concepts around the globe. This thought occurred to me while I’ve been watching Neil Guillen, a young Filipino-American chef and recent Minnesota transplant from New York City, try to introduce Minneapolis to Filipino food at his new downtown Minneapolis restaurant, Subo. ¶ Filipino food, of course, is the food of the Philippines, a chain of some 7,000 islands holding nearly a hundred million people in the tropical South Pacific. This chain of islands is often thought of as Asia’s crossroads and melting pot. The islands sit at a very convenient stopping point for those crossing the Pacific, and are not too terrifically far from Vietnam and south China, and so the Philippines has had a long history of exchange with the world’s biggest powers. At first, the Philippines were inhabited by indigenous people, but successive waves of newcomers came from mainland Asia. By the time the 1500s rolled around, the islands had been colonized by Muslims from Malaysia, and were taken over by the Spanish and run as a Spanish colony for some 300 years after that, and so were the site of some 300 years of Catholic-Muslim conflict and cooperation. Then came the Spanish-American War, in 1898, when the United States wanted Spain out of its traditional colonies, especially Cuba. One thing led to another and we took over. Then, the Japanese took over. The Philippines are independent now, and have been since World War II, but to understand the cuisine you need to take into account all those diverse influences, including not only Spanish, Chinese, Malaysian-Muslim, and pan–Southeast Asian cooking techniques and habits, but also the locally available food on the islands, especially tropical fruit, rice, and seafood. That’s a lot for one little restaurant to have to introduce to a new population in the space of a few plates!
And that, I’d suggest, is why Subo has gotten an odd reception in Minneapolis. The food avant-garde was very excited about the place to begin with: The funky, dimly lit bar with its back-bar of stacked wooden crates looked so SoHo, so artsy, so cool! But the food avant-garde turned on it almost immediately: The food wasn’t good! It was a rip-off of the Filipino restaurant where Guillen had made his name, the Kuma Inn in New York. Let me address the second complaint first, mostly because it seems goofy: If you were going to open a Southern soul-food restaurant anywhere on earth, you would have fried chicken, collard greens, and black-eyed peas not because you were ripping off another Southern restaurant, but because those dishes are part of the core repertoire of the cuisine. To have a Filipino restaurant you have to have lumpia, a sort of thin fried roll like a Chinese egg roll or Vietnamese summer roll, and a few other classic dishes. Now I’ll address the first point: If you’re not familiar with Filipino food, it’s probably going to take you a few visits to really get the hang of what you like about Filipino food. That’s not your fault, and it’s not the restaurant’s fault. It’s simply the nature of a human being meeting a new cuisine: It takes a while to feel comfortable and familiar and find what you like. It took me a few visits, and I’ve had Filipino food—albeit a more country-peasant version than Guillen’s fine cooking—any number of times in New York.
Here’s what happened to me: On my first visit to Subo, I was with a group that was hankering for seafood, and so we beelined for the seared scallops, the baby octopus, the oyster torta, and so on. And everyone at my table was coming to the same conclusions: There’s something…not…quite…right. I quizzed my server: What is it that I’m tasting? It’s fish sauce? It’s crab paste? It’s anchovy something something? None of the above, insisted my server. And I began to wonder if I was going to have to find a new career and sideline as a character in an Oliver Sacks neurology book, The Critic Who Mistook Her Dinner For Fish Sauce. Later, in conversation with Guillen, I learned that, in fact, by his estimate, 80 percent of the dishes that leave his kitchen are finished with a special Filipino fish sauce. He said Filipino chefs use fish sauce the way French ones use finishing salts like fleur de sel, as a final little grace note to focus and complete a dish. And if you’re not used to fish-sauce-finished scallops, it’s confusing. On later visits I did come to understand Guillen’s cooking, his fine but unfussy approach to creating a light and lively contemporary Filipino menu, and by my final visit to Subo, I was able to bring a few friends who had never been there and order a series of dishes that had them, both newbies to Filipino food, exclaiming things like: “I want to marry this restaurant!” and “This is the best restaurant that’s opened in Minneapolis in five years!” But it took ordering a specific series of the restaurant’s small plates. A specific series which are these:
To fall in love with Subo, if you’re not an old Filipino-food hand, start off with the Lumpia Shanghai, pencil-thin pork-filled spring rolls served with a slightly sweet dipping sauce. They’re light and pretty, graceful and charming, and so gobble-able that, by the time you notice how adorable they are, you’ve eaten them all. Proceed to the barbecued baby-back ribs, which are actually more like braised country-style ribs, big meaty ribs just shivering off the bone. (Bargain gourmet’s tip: Pair these ribs with a little portion of garlic fried rice, an exceptionally delicious simple dish for a mere $3, for the best cheap, ultra-filling dinner downtown right now.) Bigger appetites, however, will want to move on to the adobo chicken wings: sticky, stewed, deeply concentrated tasting bits of chicken that are soul-satisfying in the best peasant-food way. Then, try the mussels with lots of finely shredded lemongrass and pungent black beans. It’s a dish with obvious French technique—harmonious, but bold in its use of Asian flavors, and one of the nicest things on Subo’s menu. Add the grilled sardines if you’re a fan of those little fish, so infrequently seen in Minneapolis. I loved them. They’re served whole with Guillen’s simple, fresh chimichurri sauce, which helps tame their fishiness. The last of my picks as the best-of-the-best savory dishes at Subo is their Arroz Valenciana, a dish that can be thought of as a little Filipino melting pot in a bowl, because the tomato rice, a Spanish base, is improved with longanisa, the Filipino version of Spanish chorizo–Portuguese linguiça sausage, here made with chicken, as well as mussels and shrimp. This Arroz Valenciana is a dish that has a lot in common with Spanish paella, and yet is completely different. To this core menu, add just one or two of the rest of Guillen’s menu—perhaps smoked milkfish, a local Filipino fish that tastes like a dense lake trout, or perhaps the “Pork Candy,” which is palm-sugar candied slices of sausage that prove delicious for a bite, but quickly tire out the palate, just as eating a bag of lollipops would. (I loved the candied pork added to the vegetable fried rice, however.) Round out your meal with a truly fiery (and, I thought, wonderful) chocolate panna cotta, or fresh doughnut holes, here called “beignets,” with a kalamansi-curd dipping sauce. (Kalamansi is a fruit that’s a cross between a kumquat and an orange. It looks like a lime but is tart and terrifically fragrant.) By sticking to these easy-to-love dishes and adding a few of the more challenging ones, you’ll soon have a working understanding of Filipino food, and your own taste for it—an understanding that you can’t get through a single visit and a snap judgment.
Is taking such a deliberate approach to getting to know Filipino cuisine worth it? I’d argue yes. One of the problems of having a wonderful life in Minnesota is that it gets in the way of having a wonderful life exploring the world and having your eyes opened to the richness and difference of other people’s lives. Subo allows you to do a little of that globetrotting without leaving your own backyard, if you only draw on a little of the patience that travel requires.
Local food mavens must try Minnesota’s first haute Filipino restaurant—but don’t expect to master it in a single visit.
Ideal Meal: Lumpia, pork ribs, lemongrass mussels, garlic fried rice, fiery-hot chocolate panna cotta. Recent Buzz: Subo’s wallet-friendly happy hour is hot with hipsters. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday; happy hour 4–6 p.m., and dinner till midnight, Tuesday–Thursday; dinner till 2 a.m. Fridays & Saturdays. Prices: $3–$20. Address: Subo, 89 S. 10th St., Mpls., 612-886-2377, suboexperience.com
THE PERFECT DRINK
No visit to Subo would be complete without a drink made from a “young coconut,” that is, a coconut full of fresh juice with flesh that is spoon-tender. Get a non-alcoholic buko, as they call them at Subo, which is nothing but the coconut. Or try a cocktail like the Bounty Bar, in which a shot of vanilla vodka and a bit of white-chocolate liqueur gilds one very fresh and tasty coconut.