Time Out says
This easygoing Wicker Park café specializes in meaty, tangy-sauced home cooking from its namesake Filipino province of Cebu.
I didn’t grow up eating the delectable, Filipino chopped pork skillet known as sisig. But the version at Cebu—with pig-face nubs, duck livers and jalapeños slicked in oyster sauce and topped with a poached egg—elicited childhood memories of the ham hashes my family would fry up the day after a roast. Cebuano-style barbecue chicken wasn’t in my regular dinner rotation in the Chicago suburbs, either. But on hot summer nights, Dad would nestle chicken thighs into an aluminum pan with a whole bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce and grill them till tender and sticky—flavors that flooded back as I tore into Cebu’s caramelized, bone-in chicken inasal painted with sugary sauce.
Cebu is one of a small handful of restaurants around the country specializing in the food of its namesake Filipino island province, known for sugar-white beaches and lechon (crisp-skinned roasted pork). This easy-going Wicker Park café’s generous, meaty comfort dishes have a transportive quality that takes you somewhere warmer but also familiar.
This skinny North Avenue storefront lives in the bygone locations of Euro-emulating Americano 2211 and brunch fave Birchwood Kitchen. As my date and I walked in, our eyes were drawn to chef de cuisine/partner Malvin Tan methodically assembling Halo-Halo, the layered shaved ice dessert, at the marble counter behind a glass display case. Tan opened the restaurant with his two siblings, pastry chef/partner Cybill Tan and partner Marlon Tan.
If you couldn’t yet tell, this spot’s focused, affordable menu is one for carnivores. Cigar-shaped lumpia egg rolls crackled beneath our teeth to reveal juicy-sweet bits of marinated pork and shiitakes. We offset our fried starter with kinilaw, an umami-rich tuna ceviche dotted with red pepper, kelp and puffed rice and tossed in sour calamansi juice, malty cane vinegar and a touch of coconut milk.
Bright and brashly boozy cocktails stood up to the vinegar-tinged fare. My date’s Whiskey Shakes, a stirred bourbon and amaro cocktail tinted with cola syrup and spicy Bogart’s bitters, tasted like “an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan had a baby,” as our server put it. I went for the refreshing, Siesta-riffing Hoy Pinoy, with tequila, lime and campari-like Contratto aperitivo, whose bitterness was balanced by sweet hibiscus syrup.
To the raised eyebrows of our server, our entree order didn’t stop with the sisig, chicken inasal or even a heaping plate of eggy pancit noodles. We blamed this on the fact that he sold us on the three-hour roasted lechon belly, offered as a daily special mainly because restaurant only churns out 15 or 20 a night, and they go fast. (Who can resist the lure of a finite quantity?) The skin crunched like hard candy; the succulent, lightly smoky meat beneath whispered of spicy star anise and sweet lemongrass.
Our Halo-Halo finale was almost shockingly cold—a snowy rush of syrupy shaved ice and dense, nutty ube ice cream flecked with milky flan, red beans and strips of young coconut—getting more flavorful as it melted and osmosed. My favorite bites were those with cornflakes, their flimsy crunch and telltale corny sweetness somehow unified the amalgam of textures and temperatures. Or maybe the nostalgia did.
We left happily, if almost painfully, full. My doggy bag felt hefty with leftover sisig and the enticing promise of tomorrow’s fry-up.
Atmosphere: Dressed in clean white tile and dark wood, this narrow, 44-seat Wicker Park storefront matches its laid-back vibe with soul-warming, regional Filipino cooking.
What to eat: Cebu is a pork-lover’s haven, with standouts including the textural sisig with fried pig mask, and slow-roasted lechon belly with crunchy fried skin. Save room for dessert, like sugared Filipino doughnuts or the signature Halo-Halo.
What to drink: Cebu’s cocktail lineup playfully remakes high-octane college concoctions like the Adios MF’r, with vodka, gin, rum and blue curacao and the grenadine-stained Weng Weng, a six-liquor ode to the Long Island Iced Tea, brightened by citrus and pineapple juices.
Where to sit: It’s cramped in this bustling little café, so nab a spot at the 11-seat bar if you’re alone or in a twosome. Roomier high-tops in front are good for groups. The serene, 40-seat back patio opens in June. (Related PSA: Halo-Halo was made for Chicago summer.)
2211 W North Ave
|Opening hours:||Tue–Thu 5–10pm; Fri, Sat 5–11pm; Sun noon–4:30pm|
|Do you own this business?|