There have always been Spanish influences in the Filipino kitchen, but nowhere is the connection more obvious than with empanadas. At the tiny Merla's Kitchen in the North Park neighborhood, Merla herself does all of the cooking, while her daughters help out front.
"This was a long-time dream of hers, but you know, with kids, bills were in the way. So, finally when she retired, she decided this opportunity came," said Leni Birondo, owner of Merla's Kitchen.
The empanadas contain not only seasoned ground beef, but also cubed potatoes and a host of tiny vegetables, plus raisins and cheese. The dough is really the star, and the entire package is fried in a shallow pool of vegetable oil until slightly golden.
A sampler plate is probably the best way to go; it includes the empanada or a siopao - a steamed, pork-filled dumpling, much like a Chinese 'char siu bao.' Chicken adobo is another part of the sampler. It features boneless chicken with a sauce of soy, garlic and vinegar.
Finally, pancit noodles - thin, rice vermicelli tossed with chicken and vegetables, and a healthy dose of black pepper. Another dish with more Asian roots is the okoy - a Filipino tempura "pancake" of shrimp, tofu, squash and green onions.
"When it comes to Filipino food, there is always a dual flavor. At the same time, there's bitter and then there's salty, and then there's also maybe a sweet and sour. But always, there's a combination of two flavors going on in the same dish," said Birondo.
The desserts are truly unique. From a basic caramel flan to a cassava cake stuffed with jackfruit, and even a traditional 'ensaimada,'- which contains cheese. There's even a chocolate swirl angel food cake for good measure.
"We're a small operation right now, So, we're just going to concentrate on the little things that people have told us that were very good," Birondo said.
5207 N. Kimball Ave.
Other places for good Filippino food:
4416 N. Clark
Mom's Bake Shoppe and Restaurant
2415 W. Peterson Ave.
2501 W. Lawrence Ave. Unit D