Travel Portland: Chef Carlo Lamagna brings Filipino food to the forefront in Portland

Carlo Lamagna wants to bring Filipino food into the spotlight in Portland. The Philippines-born chef spent three years at beloved downtown restaurant Clyde Common, quietly introducing Filipino dishes onto the menu. He also ran a Filipino pop-up off and on for close to a decade. Now that he’s set to open his eponymous restaurant, Magna, in Southeast Portland, the pressure of the opportunity isn’t lost on Lamagna.

“This is our chance to define us as: one, a cuisine to be reckoned with and, two, to know there are many different aspects of Filipino food,” Lamagna said. “We don’t have to put all our eggs into that  ‘cheap food’ basket. We have a chance to really showcase the entire profile of what Filipino food could do.”

Filipino food in Portland

Pick up a national food publication from recent years and you’ll see more mentions of Filipino restaurants, ingredients and chefs than ever before. In the words of the Washington Post: “At long last, Filipino food arrives.” The cuisine seems to be appearing everywhere, from D.C.’s wait-worthy Bad Saint to L.A.’s breakfast sandwich baron Alvin Cailan to the amethyst-hued, ube-infused desserts blowing up Instagram.

In Portland, the mainstreaming of Filipino food has yet to fully take hold; in fact, the city has more Blue Star Donuts locations than Filipino restaurants. And unlike Portland’s more established Southeast Asian cuisines, Filipino food has yet to win over local diners.

Though more than 23,000 Filipino Americans live in the Portland region, only a handful of Filipino restaurants and pan-Asian food carts serve the community. Magna will be joining the ranks of other Filipino favorites like Tambayan (Southeast Portland), Fork and Spoon Food House (Northeast Portland), Boba Licious (Hillsboro) and Chicken Adobo (Bethany).

Twisted Filipino and Clyde Common

Magna is a promise Lamagna has spent 10 years trying to keep.

“On my dad’s deathbed, my dad finally said he was proud of me and what I was doing,” Lamagna said. “He said, ‘I hope that you will do great in whatever you’re doing and still be proud of who you are and where you came from.’ Basically, ‘Represent our culture.’”

That same year, Lamagna began formulating a Filipino pop-up while he was working as a chef in Chicago. For a few years, that pop-up manifested as groups of chefs eating homemade Filipino food in Lamagna’s apartment. But in 2013, the first Twisted Filipino dinner publicly debuted to back-to-back sold out crowds, and has steadily gained steam since.

The pop-up took a backseat when Lamagna moved to Portland in 2013 to become executive chef at downtown’s Clyde Common. But it didn’t take long for those Filipino influences to creep their way to the forefront. Soon, crispy pata (deep-fried pig feet) and pork-shiitake lumpia Shanghai (ultra-crisp spring rolls shaped like fat cigarillos) found a home alongside marinated olives and tender gnocchi.

“It said foreign and domestic cuisine on the window,” Lamagna said. “Nobody knows what that means, so I put Filipino food on [the menu] and started getting recognized for it.”

Decolonizing the food scene

The road to popularity for any “new” global cuisine in America is hard-won. It often involves undoing generations of marginalization and forced assimilation perpetrated by the same people now declaring that food “trendy.” Marginalized community members are compelled to be educators and spokespeople for (or worse, bystanders to) their own culture and food.

“It’s so amazing that we have this opportunity, but Filipinos have such a colonized, Western mentality,” said Lamagna. It’s the colonial mentality that prioritizes steak and potatoes over rice and dinuguan, a Filipino stew with spicy pig blood gravy. And, for generations, he said, that mentality has boiled down to Filipinos acting “as white as possible.”

That colonized mentality has also trained the Filipino community to value outsiders’ opinions over its own, Lamagna said. He’s frustrated it took American culinary giants like Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain for Filipinos to recognize the power of their food.

“I love Anthony Bourdain,” Lamagna explains. “Anybody in their right culinary mind loves him dearly. But why does it have to be someone from an outsider’s point of view to point out what we already knew was delicious and good?”

According to Lamagna, his generation is finally starting to re-explore its roots, craving both the flavors of home (adobo, lumpia and pancit) and the cultural connection that come with them.

“For us, as chefs and as our generation gets older, we start recognizing we wanted more from our parents,” he said. “We wanted more from our community.”

Magna: going beyond “cheap eats”

Like most global cuisines outside the prestigious realms of fine dining, Filipino food made by Filipinos struggles with price-based racism. In essence, many people believe that in order for the food to be “authentic,” it must be cheap — regardless of the quality of ingredients or the difficulty of preparation.

But Lamagna has also run into a frustrating roadblock among a more unexpected group: other Filipinos.

“You read all these stupid Yelp reviews from Filipinos, like ‘I can make that cheaper,’” Lamagna said about reviews of Clyde Common. “We were making our own sweet and sour sauce in house, we were using ripened fruit from farms, helping farmers unload excess and utilizing that. But does the public know that?”

On the menu at Magna

Lamagna plans to focus the initial Magna menu on educating the public about Filipino food before showcasing more regional cuisines. The opening menu will build on a bedrock of greatest hits, remixed with a few funkier dishes, Lamagna said. Expect pork adobo, a stewed pork dish often considered the Philippines’ national dish; pancit bihon, the pan-fried noodle, vegetable and meat staple (second only to rice); lumpia Shanghai; and caldereta, a rich stew made with goat meat or beef tongue.

“We’ll explore how we can elevate the aspects of the cuisine, and once we establish our identity amongst both the community and the public, that’s when we’re gonna get funky,” Lamagna said. “That’s when we’ll start bringing out the blood stew.”

Later iterations of the menu will delve deeper into the Filipino food canon, drawing inspiration from Lamagna’s identity as an Ilocano, the third largest ethnolinguistic group in the Philippines. Expect an updated version of his mom’s crab noodles, which mixes fresh Dungeness crab, house-cured salmon roe and chewy, housemade miki egg noodles with a pungent sauce made from ginger, garlic and a fermented crab roe paste called taba ng talangka.

“I’m super excited to be able to explore different regions of the Philippines,” Lamagna said. “To pull in different influences from different parts of the Philippines and really showcase and show people we’re not just the one-note cuisine.”

Visiting Magna

Magna is expected to open in May 2019 in Southeast Portland’s Division/Clinton neighborhood, near other popular eateries like Scandinavian brunch spot Broder and mussel-focused La Moule. Follow Magna on Instagram (@magnapdx) for their latest updates.

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