"Serving The Community, Line Up Here” by Ryne Dionisio

“Are you at seafood city?”

My sister texted me after I had sent a picture message of my uncle working at the hottest new eatery in Chicago: a Filipino supermarket chain. I was inside, waiting in line to order food from Grill City, one of three restaurants within the supermarket. It turned out my sister was in the parking lot - after failing to find bangus (milkfish) at Whole Foods, our mom told her she’d probably have more luck at Seafood City. Though she came for just the fish, she’d leave with eighty dollars or so worth of groceries.

I know this because I waited so long for food, I greeted her and her husband when they came in, then said bye to them after they were done. I thought about a lot of things as I waited for my number to be called, which took at least an hour and a half. That’s a lot of thinking.

First thing: How long until they build the second Seafood City in the Chicagoland area? The chain had existed for years on the west, but it took years to get here. There’s no shortage of smaller Filipino shops around Illinois, some with movie rentals and some with their own turo turo restaurants built in. But rarely do they have fresh produce or proteins like Seafood City does, nor the immense selection , and the large crowds show that demand has been there.

So the question becomes, why did it take so long for us to get the first one? Granted, it’s only been a week, but it seems the place has staying power like our three H-Mart locations (a Korean grocery chain). Sometimes I feel that it’s easy for the Midwest Filipinos to be ignored, and not just by international businesses. I’ve witnessed firsthand the surprised reactions of both west and east coast Fil-Ams when they see just how many of us there are in Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, etc.

I thought the same thing when the first Jollibee finally opened in Chicago this year, which is the McDonald’s of the Philippines. No, the food isn’t particularly great, and there are a number of better Filipino restaurants around. But there’s something nostalgic about it, and even novel when you hear your cashier call you “po”, the Tagalog sign of respect. And the long lines there showed that there’s a community willing to support it. Why the long wait?

Ironically, I wrote an article for BakitWhy in 2009 called “Who needs Jollibee?” Admittedly I was a little jealous that New York was getting one, but I didn’t really do the local Filipino food scene justice in that article.

And I’ll admit, sometimes I underestimate my own community. Last year Filipino Kitchen held their first ever Kultura Festival, a Filipino-American food and arts festival, and I was shocked at how popular it was. I was trying to find my friends who were meeting me, and they told me the line was going way down the block from the entrance. I knew of the mindset of “why pay for Filipino food when I can make it at home”, and I thought it was more prevalent, but I was happy to see that a large number of people ignore that or see how hurtful it really is.

I mean, you could easily apply that thinking to Grill City too, but I suppose the idea is that Grill City would be more convenient if not for the hour plus wait times.

Kultura was so successful that they’re holding the second on October 2nd at Emporium Logan Square and I can only imagine the size of the crowd it’ll bring. They’re bringing in at least seven chefs from around the country and the Philippines; along with demonstrations of Filipino tattoos, writing, music, dance, martial arts, and more. They’ve even partnered with and are hosting another one of the Filipino Chicago community’s biggest events, the 9th annual cooking competition Adobofest. The Midwest is hungry in more ways than one, and it’s great that Filipino Kitchen manages to get the word out about their events and fill a void that the community has.

(Get tickets here. You should go.)

After finally getting my barbecue sticks and reporting to my family that I would be eating dinner that night, my sister asked if it was better than my dad’s barbecue.

It was good, but not that good, and not 90 minutes good. But I’m still happy it’s an option. And hopefully with all the queueing going on around Chicago, more businesses and enterprising local chefs will start providing us with even more options. I’ll be lining up to support.

Ryne Dionisio is the President of UniPro's Chicago chapter, and works at Expedia, Inc. in Chicago, IL. You can contact him at ryne.dionisio@unipronow.org.