Of all the years I had been going to various ethnic restaurants in Chicago, there are two that had not made their way on to my radar: Burmese and Filipino. Chicago does not have a noticeably large Burmese restaurant, so Thai, Indian, and me mixing Thai and Indian take-away food had to suffice for that option. Filipino never jumped out at me because after years of looking for one and the one that I knew of was more Filipino fusion and in the nether reaches of the Western Suburbs, I opted for what I could find quickly through a Yahoo, Google, or word-of-mouth search. However, I decided that before I closed my browser that I would look for a Filipino restaurant just to satisfy my curiosity. Aah! I am so glad that I did.
Considering this particular Saturday afternoon was a bit chilly and most people were probably heading into downtown to watch the Festival of the Lights — you have to love watching grown men and women shouting and falling out while Mickey Mouse rides a carriage down Michigan Avenue as the lights on the trees come on — I figured I would venture a few neighbourhoods north of where I live to see if the Filipino restaurant I found on the Internet was worthy. 5207 N. Kimball Avenue. Tucked away between a corner store — that does not sell cigarettes, alcohol, and destruction to impressionable youths — and a beauty shop was this perfect little gem of a restaurant. Nice and quaint, yet personal and inviting, is Merla’s Kitchen.
From being greeted upon entry as though my patronage meant gold, I was certain that I would be in for a treat or the whole customer service presentation was a façade. Well, it was far, far, far from being false. Instead of reaching for a menu or scanning the chalkboard for a food selection, I let the guy behind the counter make a recommendation. I have noticed that allowing restaurant staff to suggest a dish, in all of my cases, has resulted in the absolute best service and meals. Such was the case on my visit to Merla’s Kitchen. The guy offered the adobo chicken with Filipino vegetarian noodles and rice. And because the dish came with an empanada, I opted for the vegetarian empanada that had tofu and cheese in it.
To maintain the authenticity of the food, there is just Merla who performs her magic in the kitchen. Nothing is yanked from the icebox, thawed in the microwave or heated in the oven, spiced for effect, scooped on to a plate, and then rushed to your table. While my order was being prepared, I had a complementary chicken and rice soup that was not like any chicken and rice soup I have had from the can. This was all prepared naturally and the diced lemon peels served in it were fantastic. After finishing the soup, I snapped a few photos of the place. If you have ever gone into any small Asian restaurant, there is a very strong feeling of home in the air, on the walls, and most definitely in the food. This was the same that I managed to catch in my still shots and in my belly once my food arrived.
One thing about restaurants that have an at-home feeling to them is I have a very strong tendency to act as though I am at home. When asked if I wanted tea for drinking with my meal, I walked to the counter and got the tea and hot water instead of having the guy behind the counter walk all the way to my table. I got up and got my sugar. And Merla, an incredibly charming woman, came out to the window seat where I was and gave me great detail about the adobo chicken, noodles, and empanada, all of which were incredible in a rolling-your-eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head way. The chicken was seasoned perfectly and cooked to a perfection that left very little effort in the meat falling off the fork when picked up. The noodles reminded me of angel hair noodles served at many Chinese restaurants, but at Merla’s Kitchen, there was a hint of soy sauce added with mixed vegetables that made the noodle dish a tasty dish all by itself. Where my meal really shined was with the empanada. Nothing small and manageable like empanadas served at Latin American restaurants, this empanada was a handful. At first I was wondering if the cheese was cheddar but the spices in the pastry played nicely such that I could taste a bit of a kick in the cheese that was definitely not cheddar. But the thing was so big and the rest of the food was so filling that I had to get the rest of the empanada to go.
While finishing my cup of tea, I asked one of the daughters who helps at the restaurant how long Merla’s Kitchen has been open for business. She informed me that it has been serving the community and visitors for a year now. Fantastic! The authenticity has apparently kept a regular customer base — and I am glad to say that I will be adding my name to the list of regular patrons. She spoke of how the restaurant will maintain its genuine attachment to the Philippines via its menu. She talked at length about the customer base and how they at Merla’s Kitchen listen to what the patrons want and order most. And she spoke about how humble they all feel about the write-ups they have received for their fare. This also added to a greater feeling that I was at home.
On the way out Merla and the daughter told me about another staple item that they vend at the restaurant. The restaurant is known for the soipai. Think hot Asian buns, much like a bow, but larger and filled with pork, chicken, or shrimp in Filipino spices. While there was no way that I was going to stuff any more into my mouth, let alone swallow, I bought a shrimp soipai for take-away. At least I now have something to remind me of the most pleasant — and appetizing — adventure I had to Merla’s Kitchen. It will tide me over until next time. I already know the seat by the window and a another possible Filipino dish I plan to order. With reasonable price, outstanding service, great food, and an atmosphere of home, it would be hard to avoid returning.
20 November 2010