Twenty-six years ago, Reynaldo and Nell Garcia set out to create a gathering place for Chicago’s growing Filipino population. They had no restaurant experience–Reynaldo was working as a chemist, Nell as a nurse–but they believed their fellow expats would appreciate a place where they could relax with friends and enjoy some native dishes. The Garcias named their venture Little Quiapo, after a historic district in their hometown, Manila.

“When we opened up, there were a lot of immigrants in this area, and there were not the restaurants,” says Rey, who came to the U.S. in 1968. “Now many have moved to the suburbs, and there are not that many new immigrants since 9/11, but people are still coming here to eat, even from out of state.”

Little Quiapo has never been fancy. Its odd, half-timbered facade is accented with a brilliant red to match the worn vinyl chairs and silk carnation clusters at the tables inside. Ceiling tiles sag in spots, and many of the framed shell collages hanging on the walls are still tautly shrink-wrapped. But cheery servers are ready with pitchers of water and menu suggestions, a TV provides a high-pitched sound track of Pinoy news and three-hankie soaps, and everyone seems to know everyone else’s name.

The focus here is the food. The buffet ($5.99-$7.99) brims with steaming noodles and colorful stir-fries. Appetizers range from $2.25 to $5.50, pancit–noodle-based main courses–are $6.40, rice dishes run $6, and other entrees average about $7, with seafood dishes slightly higher. Desserts are few and cheap, topping out at $3 for the halo-halo, a cloying mix of preserved tropical fruits, crushed ice, milk, and ice cream.

Unlike the flavors popular in neighboring Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and parts of China, Filipino food isn’t heavy on the hot and spicy. Foundations lie instead on sour and salt. In many cases the sour comes from cooking in vinegar and from vinaigrette sauces. The salt often comes from a condiment called bagoong, a paste made of tiny fermented shrimp. Peanut and coconut sauces are also popular.

Filipino food also draws from the flavors of countries that invaded, did business in, or tried to settle on one of the archipelago’s more than 7,000 islands. The Spanish, who ruled the country for almost 400 years, contributed such dishes as adobo (vinegar-marinated stew), escabeche (fish cooked in vinegar, garlic, onions, and ginger), and flan. Discerning foodies may also detect Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and Arab flavors.

Off-the-menu take-out fare can be found in a display case next to the front door. Here, containers of various adobos share space with baggies of fried chicken skin, piles of fried bananas, and stacked trays of balut, a widely popular island snack that consists of a boiled duck egg with a surprise inside–a half-incubated bird.

The restaurant will also roast a whole pig with three days’ notice. Lechon is a staple for special occasions in the Philippines and typically commands center stage on any well-decked table. Little Quiapo’s lechon is seasoned with salt and pepper and wrapped in banana leaves to keep the flavor in. Delivery is included in the price (typically around $150), and whether the head arrives with the pig or remains at the restaurant is the customer’s call.

None of these specialties, however, are doled out at the booth Little Quiapo has manned for the past ten years at Taste of Chicago. Instead it sticks to crowd pleasers like egg rolls, fried rice, and barbecue. “People like quick food,” says Rey–and most don’t want to eat duck embryos.

Nevertheless the booth was enticing enough to draw Bill Clinton, who stopped by for some barbecue during a tour in 2000. The then-president said he was heading to Manila for a summit and wanted to try some of the food, recalls Rey. “He took barbecue and an egg roll–he said, ‘I can’t eat all of this,’ but I think it was because another booth was calling him.”

Little Quiapo is at 4423 N. Clark, 773-271-5441.

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