As a child in Lockport, Jennifer Aranas found her mother’s Filipino home cooking far more palatable than American grub. “My mom was a nurse who worked the graveyard shift, so she had a lot of time to cook for her kids. She chopped, diced, shredded, did all that labor-intensive work Filipino food demands,” she says. “It helped that she was a terrific cook.” At her side Aranas gradually became versed in recipes from her parents’ native Cebu, one of the major islands of the Philippines.

All that time in the kitchen had an unintended effect. Though she had a degree in accounting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Aranas started studying the restaurant trade in 1994. The decision didn’t sit well with her parents. “My folks are professionals with middle-class Filipino values,” she explains. “To them, cooking for strangers is blue-collar work, not appropriate for a college graduate. They still don’t realize that a lot of chefs in this country are celebrities and make more money than professors.” While working as an accountant for a real estate firm, Aranas enrolled at Evanston’s Kendall College, known for its rigorous classes in cooking and restaurant management. After graduation she was hired as a line cook at Cassis, a now defunct Gold Coast eatery.

That’s where she met Cesar Casillas. A Chicago Heights native, Casillas had worked his way up from busboy to waiter. On one of their first dates she invited him to her parents’ for dinner. Casillas, who’s a second-generation Mexican-American, had never had Filipino food. “I was surprised by how Mexican it is,” he recalls, “with a lot of the same flavoring and ingredients.”

As in Mexico, the Spanish ruled the Philippines for centuries, leaving their imprint on the nation’s cuisine. In 1565, 44 years after Magellan sailed there, the first wave of Spanish settlers arrived and colonized the islands on the eastern fringe of the South China Sea. Cebu, an elongated strip in a group of islands called the Visayans, was chosen as the site for the first permanent settlement partly because of its safe harbors. Most residents today are descendants of Malays from neighboring Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula, though the ethnic mix includes Chinese and Spanish as well.

When Aranas went to Cebu with her family 12 years ago–her first and only visit–she found the air pungent, redolent of rice fields and chicken coops. Their relatives treated them to lavish home-cooked meals. Aranas says she began to appreciate the abundance of tropical produce in Cebuano cooking and the depth of the Spanish influence. “We use tomatoes and garlic a lot–both, I believe, are Spanish imports,” she says. “Many of our dishes have Spanish names and counterparts, like camarones rebosados and chicken tinola, except we put in papaya, cilantro, mint, and such. I sometimes serve arroz caldo, a soup whose chief ingredient, rice, came from India, then got all the way to Spain and the Americas, and eventually found its way in a Spanish recipe back to Asia, to the Philippines. I find that fascinating. There’s still so much to know about cross-fertilization of dishes in two related countries.”

Three years ago Aranas and Casillas moved to northern California to learn about wine, working in haute Italian and French restaurants in the Napa Valley. But after the stock market crashed in the fall of 1997 customers stopped coming in. “I got a job in accounting but didn’t like it,” says Aranas. “So we decided finally to take the plunge, opening our own restaurant in Chicago.” They found an empty storefront at Belmont and Milwaukee that had been a currency exchange. To their surprise, Aranas’s parents put up some money to help the launch. Rambutan, named after a Malay fruit, has a menu that lists nine entrees, including pancit, a national dish. Aranas’s version uses more broth than most, mixing rice and egg noodles with Chinese sausage, chicken strips, shiitake mushrooms, celery, and carrots, all splashed with oyster sauce ($5.25). For adobo, another national dish, Aranas cooks chicken with rice wine, coconut vinegar, and garlic ($5). In guinataan lambay ($12), a special on one evening, soft-shell crabs rest on a delicate ragout of sweet potatoes, corn, taro, plantains, and jackfruit. Kare-kare ($7.25) is oxtail stewed with green beans, eggplant, and caramelized onions. Appetizers include lumpia ubod ($5.95), Spanish crepes filled with seasonal green salad, and lumpia Shanghai ($4.75), egg rolls stuffed with pork, cabbage, and ginger. In a concession to American taste buds, Aranas offers mashed potatoes whipped with roasted garlic and coconut milk ($3.50). And for dessert there’s halo-halo ($5.25), a tropical fruit sundae that’s very popular with Filipino children.

On most nights the place is packed, which has prompted Aranas and Casillas to talk about moving when their lease is up in October. But Aranas mainly is delighted at her mother’s approval. “She and dad drive from Lockport quite often now,” she says, “and she’s just made a reservation for this weekend.”

Rambutan, 3909 W. Belmont, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 PM. Call 773-777-3940. –Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.