On a recent Friday night at Boonie’s Filipino Restaurant, the conversation came to an abrupt halt when the sizzling pork sisig topped with raw egg hit our table. The four of us sat, transfixed, as a server methodically worked the egg into the citrus-scented hash of minced pork belly and caramelized sweet onions, which sputtered their approval like applause. Tangy, sweet, unctuous and textural, such gestalt cooking merits a moment of speechlessness. At the very least, promise me you’ll start your meal with it every time you eat here, if you’re a meat eater that is.
Boonie’s sisig doesn’t just elicit awed silences; in fact, it was the subject of much chatter when chef/owner Joseph Fontelera’s pandemic popup, Boonie’s Foods, landed at Revival Food Hall in 2020. Since debuting his brick-and-mortar storefront five months ago, the former executive chef of Arami has come into his own with Filipino-inspired cooking that honors his Philippines-born grandmother, Estefania Bondoc Clarito, and his forebears who immigrated to Chicago starting in 1970.
Boonie’s hugs like a metaphorical grandmother in all sorts of ways, starting the moment you walk in and see bowls of individually wrapped Hongyuan guava candies in the entryway and on the host stand. The diminutive, low-lit space—warmly dressed in blonde wood accents and framed family photos and whimsical prints—offers a cozy contrast to the sprawling, airy restaurants that have punctuated Chicago’s buzzier openings of late. And, oh, that food—boldly charred, umami-rich and satisfying, balanced by mouth-watering acidity and sweetness.
Boonie’s concise, affordable menu breaks out into five parts: Panimula (Small Plates), Inihaw (Grilled Bites), Ulam (Entrées), Panghimagas (Desserts) and Sides. Despite sensible guidance from our server (“You’ll be fine sharing two or three small plates and three mains”), my three companions and I took the “kain tayo” (Tagalog for “let’s eat”) neon by the entrance literally and ordered almost everything. On that note, nothing lights a proverbial fire under an indecisive group of diners like hearing the garlic rice is running low, as the server warned us a few minutes after we arrived at 7 p.m. Fontelera has upped nightly available quantities of the fluffy, nutty rice laced with toasted garlic—available for, and worth, a $6 upcharge. Regardless, Boonie’s almost always sells out, so go early.
Fontelera later told me he feels immense responsibility, not just to honor the traditional cooking of his family that inspired his career path, “but also be a part of the development and growth of Filipino cuisine in the U.S. that we, for too long, have not had the opportunity to nurture.”
He toys with intensity while maintaining astonishing harmony in dishes—for instance, sneaking kewpie mayo into the already umami-rich sisig. His crunchy lumpiang Shanghai cigars shatter in satisfying percussion to reveal succulent, Berkshire ground pork seasoned with house-fermented sambal, ginger and garlic. Coconut vinegar, fish sauce and burnt tomato lend magnetic tang and umami to paksiw, a vinegary soup teeming with cured mahi mahi that warms like medicine for the soul.
Vegetarians will be well-fed here, too—with a pleasant iteration of pancit Canton, packing springy stir-fried ramen noodles, mushrooms, cabbage and herbs.
That night’s mic-drop dish was unsurprisingly carnivorous, however—in the (somewhat) surprising form of a chicken thigh skewer so succulent it actually melted in my mouth. Fontelera’s chicken inasal starts the day before with a marinade of tamari, calamansi juice and coconut vinegar. The meat is grilled until charred and confoundingly juicy, served alongside bracing, vinegary toyomansi infused with locally foraged ramps and a few of his mom’s homegrown habañeros.
The sole miss was the humba; five spice-flavored adobo pork belly was a bit tough, albeit slicked in pleasantly sweet and savory sauce.
For dessert, bibingka royale, a bouncy, mochi-like rice butter cake starring grassy pandan leaf and sweet corn, sported a nostalgic sweetness that recalled my grandmother’s Cream of Wheat. We alternated bites with silky, brown sugary ice cream infused with small-batch Kasama rum and made exclusively for Boonie’s by Ravenswood ice cream shop Milky Milky.
In true grandma fashion, the food kept coming, as four slabs of champagne mango arrived with our check.
“It is an act of gratitude for our guests,” the server explained. I smiled as I grabbed a candy from the host stand on the way out the door, Boonie’s tagline on Instagram echoing in my head: “Kumain ka na?” (“Did you eat?”)
Did we ever.
The vibe: Low-lit, warm and casual with bold, satiating Filipino cooking that won’t break the bank (dishes range from $6 for bites to $28 for the priciest entrée). Book weekend reservations in advance; same-day bookings are often available on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
The food: Meaty, umami-rich small plates, skewers and mains are impeccably balanced by mouth-watering acidity and sweetness. Don’t miss the chicken inasal skewer, pork sisig, and vegetarian Canton pancit. Lunch is imminent and will be first come, first serve; check social media for updates.
The drink: BYO for now, Boonie’s peddles Marz sodas and CBD shrubs, Rishi teas and Gina juices. We’d suggest “improving” the excellent calamansi or mango juice with a BYO shot of vodka, rum or tequila, or picking up a bottle of bubbles or Riesling at nearby Augusta Food & Wine. Boonie’s aims to get its liquor license before the end of the year.