Soto ayam, Mama Betty’s special-occasion chicken soup Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

John Avila’s mom and grandma tried to “sneak” some tikus rica rica into his bowl when he visited their hometown in the mountains of North Sulawesi, Indonesia, a few years back.

That’s a spicy field-rat stir-fry, and the chef, on a travel break from the line at the Duck Inn, wasn’t fooled.

“It’s a little too freaky for me,” says Avila, who recently launched an Indonesian meal delivery service based on his mother Betty’s recipes. “The bone structure gives it away.” 

The food of the Minahasa Peninsula, where Betty’s hometown Tomohon is, has a wild streak, known for some dishes built on bushmeat—snakes, fruit bats, the occasional primate—but that isn’t part of Avila’s menu plan. A few weeks ago he delivered 20 orders of bubur manado, the official breakfast of the regional capital city. It’s a hearty, lemongrass-perfumed, (in this case) vegan congee loaded with spinach, pumpkin, taro root, and corn. “All things that grow around that island,” he says. 

John AvilaCredit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Avila, who’s 32, has been cooking in Chicago for a dozen years under some familiar chefs. His first job out of culinary school was at Jackie Shen’s erstwhile Red Light before moving on to the Sofitel under Greg Biggers, and the Four Seasons when Kevin Hickey was in charge. A few years back he spent a year cooking in a New Zealand hotel before staging his way across Australia, Japan, and the Philippines, “exploring the wilderness and trying to find myself.”

Up until last month he was a sous chef putting down some pretty plates at Gibsons Italia, when he left amid a downsizing that would have demoted him. Like so many chefs forced to pivot during the pandemic, he turned to his childhood.

Betty Avila came to Chicago in 1986, and her son grew up eating the food his grandmother taught her to make in Tomohon (and the Filipino food she learned when she met his dad). “I had this project going in my head for the past couple months,” he says. “Throughout my whole career I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I was like ‘I should really open a restaurant with my mom.’”

Soto ayamCredit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Avila quietly launched @minahasachicago on Instagram in early September shortly before leaving Gibsons Italia, offering ayam tuturuga, a turmeric-tinged lemongrass chicken dish that Betty made nearly every day. “I’d feed it to my friends, and everybody was like, ‘Oh, this is great.’ So I was just like, ‘Why don’t I introduce this to everyone in Chicago?’” He followed up with the well-known beef rendang (not from Minahasa but still one of his favorites). Then came soto ayam, Betty’s special-occasion chicken soup with hard-boiled eggs, bean sprouts, tomatoes, crispy garlic and shallots, celery leaves, lime, and sambal.

I ordered this soup when Avila reprised it a few weeks ago. The broth was luminescent, a vivid, limpid, golden bowl of sunshine fueled with sambal and packed with contrasting textures. Avila usually offers skewers of sate and egg rolls in his weekly menu, but this week he was running a special of enormous full-jointed chicken wings slathered in sambal.

Mama Betty’s egg rollsCredit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

I ordered the bubur manado another week, ignited with dabu-dabu—Minahasa’s signature tomato and shrimp paste sambal. I didn’t realize the congee, sometimes called tinutuan, was vegan until Avila told me later. It was the full-flavored blanket of complementary starches that I needed as election anxiety began to spike. 

Each menu comes with one of Betty’s sweets, this one bearing onde-onde, an entirely different interpretation of the coconut-rolled rice balls with bursting palm sugar cores that I wrote about a few weeks ago. The soto ayam came with a jiggly, coconut-pandan layered rice cake with a smooth, fudgy texture, another Betty signature.

As far as Indonesian food goes, it’s always been rare in Chicago. Another mother-and-son team, Chris and Priscilla Reed of the Indo-Creole mashup Bumbu Roux, have survived the closing of their home at Politan Row, but with Rickshaw Republic a summer casualty of the pandemic, they and Minahasa are the only games in town. When the dust of the pandemic settles, John and Betty aim to go brick and mortar.

Until then, next week’s menu will feature the usual egg rolls, bakso (a meatball soup), fried bananas (pisang goreng), the fried noodle dish mie goreng, and ayam rica rica,like a spicy chili and tomato stir-fried field rat—but with chicken. 

The bone structure should give it away.  v