Ilocano cuisine is minimalist. It has frugal characteristics in that it is simple, affordable and green, which are epitomized by pinakbet (sautéed vegetables with shrimp paste). It is the most popular Ilocano dish.
A myriad of pinakbet recipes exists. But what makes the pinakbet at Kusinang Pinoy (Filipino Kitchen) in Oak Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, different and special is the pork ingredient. It is optional, that is, it can be included at the end of cooking. Johnny Ventura, the chef-owner, explains, “This is the age of inclusion. We modify our recipes to include as many people as possible in Kusinang Pinoy. We have Muslim customers from the Philippines, as well as vegetarians from the area. They are regulars, so I know their preferences. I do not include pork in their pinakbet.”
His wife, Marilou Onato Ventura, who hails from Baguio City, is an Ilocana. She taught him the recipe for pinakbet. “Ilocano cooking, “ Johnny says, “is something that I just learned recently. I am gaining a new soul by learning Ilocano food and culture.”
He grew up happily in Marikina City, a suburb of Manila, in the restaurant business. His mother, Perpetua Vasquez Ventura, owned a karinderiya (native restaurant). She was always a happy person, so her karinderiya’s name was Aling Happy Restaurant, and that made everybody happy.
Johnny’s mother was more than happy to teach him the rudiments of cooking. He would observe her cook, as well as tag along when she went to the market. He ended up mastering the art of ihaw-ihaw (grilling). “I developed my owned marinating concoction,” he remembers. “It was the top hit at my mother’s restaurant. My mother was so proud that I learned to be creatively independent.”
When Johnny and his family would crave for Filipino food in Chicagoland (Chicago and suburbs), they would drive for an hour to go to the north suburbs, where most of Filipino restaurants and grocery stores are located. It did not take him long to realize that there was a need for a Filipino restaurant in the south suburbs.
When Kusinang Pinoy was established, people could not thank him enough for it. Genevieve Magante Trabado, a nurse and who grew up in Biñan, Laguna, says, “Kusinang Pinoy is near our home, and their food is awesome! My family and I love their weekend buffets!”
Tommy and Bobbie Ferguson developed their taste for Filipino food because their Filipino coworkers would let them taste their lunch. They were eventually invited to Filipino parties, where they were more exposed to Filipino food and culture. “Filipinos and African Americans both have expressive energy. I love it!” Bobbie rhapsodizes. “I can’t stop eating the Filipino lumpia (egg roll). I come to Kusinang Pinoy when I have a craving for it.”
Aside from pinakbet, Kusinang Pinoy’s customers clamor for sisig (seasoned parts of pig’s liver and head), kare-kare (oxtail stew in peanut-butter sauce), and goat or beef kaldereta (stew). What keeps the restaurant busier is catering all kinds of events. Customers are always encouraged to order in advance.
How does he attribute the success of Kusinang Pinoy? “My mother’s happiness,” Johnny Ventura replies, “has influenced me to be happy in whatever I do, from cooking and taking care of my family to playing golf and basketball. Kusinang Pinoy is happiness, which makes the world go round!”
16150 South Cicero Avenue, Suite 8
Oak Forest, Illinois 60452
Tel. (708) 535-6460
Click here for Kusinang Pinoy's Pinakbet recipe.
Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed.D., writes from Chicagoland when he is not loving the arts and traveling. He is the author of the children’s book, Ballesteros on My Mind: My Hometown in the Philippines, which also has Ilocano, Spanish, and Tagalog versions.
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