Besides his mom and an aunt who lived nearby, Pimentel learned his way around the kitchen from his lolas — grandmothers — who lived on and off with the family in their home in West Nyack, about an hour’s drive north of New York City.
Pimentel began cooking more frequently in 2014 when he moved to Atlanta to work for Delta. Separated from family, he missed the Filipino food of his upbringing and was hard-pressed to find it, despite Atlanta’s reputation as an international city. Posting photos of his dishes on social media was a way to connect with fellow Filipino-Americans (Fil-Am) and express pride in his heritage.
Through Instagram, he met the few Filipinos in the local food community, including Mia Oriño, who was getting her own pop-up, Kamayan ATL, off the ground. After volunteering to roll lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls) and pitch in on other tasks for Oriño’s events, Pimentel was inspired to start a pop-up and catering business of his own.
Personal approach to Filipino food
“A lot of my recipes are influenced or inspired by the food I grew up eating at home,” Pimentel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August 2020, a year after his pop-up debuted at Monday Night Brewing. “But my approach to Filipino food, what I want to offer, is my experience growing up in the U.S. I don’t want to mislead people into thinking that I grew up in the Philippines, that this is the food of the Philippines, because I grew up here.”
“Mike knows his character and who he is. His food reflects that,” said Oriño.
Pimentel sticks to traditional preparation methods for chicken adobo and lumpia, but other dishes sport a contemporary culinary playfulness that resonates with patrons less concerned about so-called authenticity than taste. There have been egg tarts made bright purple with ube, a sweet potato native to the Philippines. He’s got a Filipino rendition of loaded fries served with a fry sauce featuring Jufran, a brand of Filipino-style ketchup made from bananas. And don’t forget the adobaos.
On a recent Saturday morning, Pimentel was busy in his newly acquired commissary kitchen doing the final prep for a pop-up at Eventide Brewing that afternoon.
“I feel more comfortable trying new ideas,” Pimentel said, commenting on how his food has evolved in the last couple of years.
He’s mindful about preparing dishes that align with today’s vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free eaters. The menu is planned around speed, so customers don’t have to wait long. And he’s begun to focus on presentation of his to-go food. “I used to think as long as it tastes good, it’s OK. Now, I want the food to look inviting.”
Through trial and error, he’s honed processes to suit his concept and business model, from devising his own three-fingered method of measuring the water-to-rice ratio for a 50-serving rice cooker to calculating fair portion sizes without undercutting prices. His engineer mind reveals itself in a lengthy to-do list on his iPhone, with completion times down to the minute mark.
By 9:30 a.m. that Saturday, the garnishes for bistek rice bowls had been chopped, the rice cooker was doing its thing, and the oven and burners were hot with a catering order for pancit, pork wonton soup and lechon liempo (Filipino-style rolled pork belly). For a one-man show, he appeared unhurried and calm. Yet he confessed to an internal unease.
The pop-up at Eventide was old hat for someone who’s fed plenty of beer guzzlers at local breweries, but Pimentel was nervous about the next day. That Sunday would mark the first time hosting an event in his own space. It meant that “people are coming for me and my food, not because they are going to a brewery.” With Adobo ATL as the reason for the occasion, would he have a crowd?
Community not competition
Few Filipino restaurants have existed in Atlanta since the first wave of immigrants arrived here in the 1960s and ‘70s. None of these settlers came with the intention of opening a restaurant. They were doctors and nurses — followed by engineers and architects — who came on work visas, according to Juliet Cook, president of the Filipino-American Association of Greater Atlanta. The organization was founded in 1974 as a way for Filipino immigrants “who longed for our culture” to find fellowship, Cook said.
Nearly 50 years later, about 42,000 Georgians — 0.4% of the population — identify fully or partially as ethnically Filipino, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates gathered in 2019. While nearly 60% live in metro Atlanta, they are not clustered in any single city; they are widely spread across the 29 counties that comprise this statistical area.
The combination of a small, scattered population and a culture that engrains in its youth the importance of a college education accounts for the lack of Filipino food-service establishments in greater Atlanta, said Mary Jane Rolen, president of the Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce of Georgia (PACCGA).
Rolen, who was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. in 1988 at age 26, recalled a long-shuttered, short-lived Filipino cafeteria-style restaurant in Jonesboro. Kuya’s Food Express has been around for a while but remains a modest food-court stall at the City Farmers Market in Duluth. Janet’s Kitchen opened for Filipino/soul food sit-down service in 2017 in Decatur but closed by 2019.
But the Fil-Am tide is turning — not just here in Atlanta, but nationally.
In 2019, Filipino-American chef Tom Cunanan took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. A year later, four Fil-Am chefs across the country received Beard nominations. Cookbooks like Alvin Cailan’s 2020 “Amboy” celebrate personal expressions of Filipino-American cuisine and make it accessible to home cooks.
Closer to home, Filipino business partners Hope Webb and Walter Cortado opened full-service Estrellita in Grant Park in 2020. Kamayan ATL, the pop-up by Oriño and her partner Carlo Gan, has blown up. They recently garnered a James Beard Award nomination as emerging chefs and have secured a brick-and-mortar spot on Buford Highway, currently used for pop-up and underground events and scheduled to open as a full-fledged restaurant in late spring. And fledgling Filipino-focused bakery pop-ups are on the rise, with names like Three Lolas Bake Shop, Seven Fingers Baked Goods, Real Deal Bakery, Boalicious and Baker’s Hatt. Followers keep up with their locations on Instagram.
The food at Adobo ATL elicits two typical reactions, said Grace Wynn, who often helps Pimentel at his pop-up events. “It’s either, ‘I’ve never had this before,’ or ‘Oh, my god! Where have you been? I’ve been looking for this in this city.’”
This rings true for Pimentel’s peers.
“The customers I have that are Filipinos have immigrated from the Philippines. They are wanting that taste of home,” said Baker’s Hatt baker-owner Barbara Hattrich, who launched her cottage business in May 2020. “The ones who are American know someone who is Filipino, work with one or are married to one. Others are just like, ‘I just want to know what ube is.’” For Hattrich, the defining moment for Filipino cuisine going mainstream was when Trader Joe’s released its own brand of ube ice cream in 2019.
These entrepreneurs are optimistic that Filipino fare is here to stay because they’ve banded together and support one another. “It’s not competition. There is room for everyone at the table,” said Hattrich.
“The success of one is the success of all,” said Oriño. “There has always been open communication with each other. We respect everyone’s specialties. It’s a huge pie and everybody should have a part of that pie. It’s arm in arm. We don’t want another restaurant closing. It’s like a slap in the face as a community, as a race, as Filipinos.”
Rolen of PACCGA credits the young Filipino entrepreneurs for elevating the cuisine of their ancestors. “They are more adventurous. They are so savvy with social media that they are able to market the food. They are also more assimilated than past generations. Of course, they bring their friends, introduce them to the food, and it’s a domino effect.”
The proof is in Kamayan ATL’s recent James Beard nomination, said Oriño. “This is saying to everyone else, we are on par with every other cuisine out there. We are deserving.”
The weather was not cooperating Sunday morning, the day of the commissary’s public debut, as Pimentel prepared a massive mound of sinangag (fried garlic rice) on the flattop grill while Wynn cut banana leaves to size as plate liners.
Pimentel had planned his menu around silog, a traditional breakfast composed of two key dishes — sinangag and itlog (egg) — plated with any variety of protein. Pimentel would be offering tapsilog (sliced beef rib-eye), tocilog (chicken), fried Spam and sisilog (pork).
As Pimentel methodically worked his pre-service plan, he looked out at the rain, unsure if it would deter patrons. At least three people would come in, he joked, because they had pre-ordered and paid.
The small dining room was in order. A handful of mismatched chairs were placed around square tables. The art on the white walls was scant, but meaningful: an oversized spoon and fork carved in wood, a typical adornment in Filipino households; a couple straw brooms, known as walis, just like the ones at his childhood home; a colored pencil drawing of a sambaguita, the national flower of the Philippines; a print holding the logo of Jollibee, the McDonald’s of the Philippines; another print bearing the San Miguel beer label.
“I didn’t want to be super traditional, but I did want to reflect my heritage,” he said of the decor.
As the clock struck noon, a group of five approached the door.
“People!” shouted Wynn, who assumed her place behind the make-shift ordering counter.
As the day proceeded, a respectable stream of Filipinos and non-Filipinos showed up, including Tony Wilkey, who took his time eating sisilog and veggie lumpia before heading to an Atlanta United match.
“I just really like trying new food,” said Wilkey, a resident of Tucker, whose half-Filipino pal tipped him off to the pop-up.
Pimentel’s wife, Fei Lai, sat in the corner, chatting with a family friend while her husband cooked and ran food to guests. She credits the “network of Filipinos” and the “different visions of what they want to do with Filipino food” for providing a foundation for their fledgling food community and for encouraging her husband on his personal culinary journey.
“A pop-up is lonely,” said Oriño. “But if there is someone there, rooting for you or believing in you, you will see your own worth.”
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