Word is spreading quickly, however, that the Ukrainian Village has unwittingly added a Filipino flavor to its community: Uncle Mike’s Place, the home of Filipino breakfast in Chicago. It owes its fame and success to a combination of hard work and serendipity.
Mike Grajewski’s mother was a Ukrainian and his father was Polish. He grew up in the Ukrainian Village. He met his future wife, Lucie, who was then a Loyola University of Chicago student, at a party. After their marriage, they lived in three-story building in which Lucie’s mother, Leonida Serrano, stayed on one of the floors. The aroma of her cooking usually pervaded the building, and Mike could not help but be exposed, if not immersed, in Philippine cuisine.
“My mother was a great cook,” Lucie recalls. “She never taught Mike how to cook. Mike merely observed her. He has a knack for smelling and tasting food and being able to cook it afterwards.”
Mike and Lucie have always wanted to own a business. So when a diner, which was originally an Italian-American grocery store for four decades was up for sale, Mike and Lucie bought it. Uncle Mike’s Place opened in January 1991. The standard fare for any diner, like pancakes, sandwiches and egg dishes, was served. Then, Mike enhanced the menu with a Philippine twist. “I added the marinated skirt steak, which instantly became a hit,” he says.
Lucie would sometimes eat Filipino breakfast at one of the tables. Customers, especially Filipinos, would ask her if they could also order the same food. She shared her experience with Mike and that made them start thinking.
Enter one of their vendors who informed Mike about their in-house Filipino sausage and bacon, which he volunteered to promote at Uncle Mike’s Place. And that is how Filipino breakfast began to be the centerpiece of the menu.
Filipino breakfast at Uncle Mike’s Place is truly to die for. Not only is the presentation enticing, but the gastronomic experience is nonesuch as well.
The menu includes a wide array of traditional and modified Filipino breakfast dishes: longganisa (anise wine-cured sweet sausage), bangus (boneless marinated milkfish, which can either be regular or bigatin [heavyweight], Spam (luncheon meat, which can either be regular or hot and spicy), tosino (anise wine-cured pork-shoulder bacon), skirt steak (marinated to perfection) and pork chop (thin-cut bone-in loin chop).
Served in a huge plate, each dish includes two eggs any style, garlic fried rice and a bowl of Chicago lugaw (rice porridge), which is Mike’s recipe inspired by his mother-in-law.
Most Filipinos live in Chicago’s North Side, but they are known to disregard any distance when it comes to good food. Sandra Masibay, a schoolteacher, always tells her friends and relatives about the renowned Filipino breakfast at Uncle Mike’s Place. She elaborates, “Mike and Lucie set the homelike ambience by circulating in the restaurant and really getting to know people. It did not take long for them to become my friends.”
Mike Magajne, a financial planner of Slovenian ancestry, naturally gravitated towards Uncle Mike’s Place because he lives only two blocks away. “The reddish color of the longganisa and tosino,” he remembers, “piqued my interest, and I just had to try them.” He has become a habitue, introducing Uncle Mike’s Place to everybody, including his Filipino clients.
Len Cannata, an Italian-American law student from Cicero, Illinois, was looking for a place to eat at an unholy hour, and Uncle Mike’s Place was the only one that was open. He chose a Filipino breakfast out of curiosity, and he has not stopped ordering one from thereon. “Not only is the Filipino breakfast delicious,” he explains, “but the size is also humongous!”
Mike and Lucie Grajewski are proud to have made Uncle Mike’s Place the best place to have Filipino breakfast in Chicago. “Our Filipino breakfast should only be a starter,” Mike says. “We hope more people will explore and experience Philippine cuisine in its entirety,” Lucie adds.
Uncle Mike’s Place
1712 West Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
Tel. (312) 226-5318
Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed.D., writes from Chicagoland when he is not busy traveling and loving the arts.
1/2 fresh chicken
3 cups washed botan rice
32 oz chicken stock
3 oz fresh chopped ginger
3 oz ginger garlic paste
3 oz fresh diced garlic
3 oz chicken base paste
3 oz sushi ginger (optional)
Fresh sliced lemon
Put 64 oz cold water in a double-boiler pot and add all the ingredients together. Bring pot to a boil and lower heat to medium and let cook in the double- boiler for 1 and ½ hours. Check water level at the bottom of your double- boiler pot and make sure there is enough water at all times.
When using a regular soup pot instead of a double-boiler, bring the soup to a boil, lower heat temperature to medium but keep stirring until rice and chicken is cooked and then simmer for another ½ hr stirring every now and then so nothing sticks at the bottom of the pot.
Serve with desired garnishing on top.