In 2019, Filipino chef Joseph Fontelera worked for a Japanese restaurant. Over the years, he learned so much his coworkers would tell him, “You’re basically Japanese” or “You pass as one of us.” He felt like the more he was in the kitchen, the more he erased a part of his own identity. It wasn’t the first time he strayed away. Previously, he worked in French cuisine, and before that, American – but never Filipino. He said he wondered why he wasn’t using his culinary skills to uplift his own background in the same way.

Filipinos make up the third largest Asian ethnic group in the United States, yet there are only 20 Filipino restaurants in Chicago, a city of 2.7 million people. With a mission to represent his culture and background, Fontelera first introduced Boonie’s to Chicago in 2020. His goal? To “make really Filipino food.” A year ago in February, Boonie’s became a full-fledged restaurant in Lincoln Square.

“The invisibility of our people and our culture really bothered me,” Fontelera said. “There’s always a sushi restaurant down the street, you know?”

Overcoming Assimilation

Fontelera’s road to Boonie’s began with the slow departure from his culture during childhood. His parents emigrated from the Philippines in the 1970s to escape the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos and gain better economic opportunities. At first, he and his family lived in Lincoln Square, but when they moved to Skokie, Illinois in grade-school, preserving their culture became more difficult.

In the classroom, Fontelera had “an implicit feeling [he] had to assimilate.” He remembered bringing Adobo, a Filipino braised meat dish, for lunch in the first grade. He was confused why the other Filipino students were eating American food like burgers.

“The midwest very methodically separates you from your culture of origin,” he explained.

Still, his Lola (grandma) strived to keep the culture alive in their household.

“The typical attitude is to defer to white people, but my Lola would always say, hindi sila marunong (they just don’t know how),” he said. “Which essentially is her way of saying she doesn’t want to take the blame for everyone’s ignorance.”

Chloe Pestano Que

Embracing Filipino Culture 

In his 20s, his Lola's words gnawed at him to reconnect with his Filipino roots. For a while, he said he felt encouraged by the rise of Asian representation in pop culture throughout the last decade, because people finally realized the unique cultures within Asia. Then, the pandemic struck.

“Suddenly we all became Chinese again and victims of hate crimes,” he said. He took his frustration, both in his personal life working for the Japanese restaurant and toward the world at large, as an opportunity to “do the community a service” and in 2020, he opened Boonie’s.

Named after his Lola, Boonie’s is an American slang term taken from the Filipino word Bundok – also his Lola's maiden name. The business began as a small pop-up, but after receiving glowing reviews, he bet on himself and quit his job to pursue it full-time. Soon, he secured Boonie’s a spot in Revival Food Hall, a predominantly white space with no other businesses of color. He said he viewed this as a unique opportunity to diversify Chicago’s food scene by making authentic Filipino food. He recalled Filipino customers from Idaho who had come to them saying they had never seen a restaurant representing their culture before.

Boonie's Officially Opens

In 2023, he got a restaurant space in Lincoln Square. In a full circle moment, he returned to his first home, and the Adobo he once ate as a child in the cafeteria is now served at his restaurant. This recipe is particularly special to Fontelera.

Chloe Pestano Que

Adobo is one of the most simple things appearance wise in our cuisine, but it’s made up of five ingredients that are so difficult to nail,” he said. “Nobody likes super soupy and bland Adobo, but no one likes it dry and shredded.”

Luckily, Fontelera believes he’s found the perfect combination and said he was proud of the final product.

“My Lola even said it tasted like adobo is supposed to, so you know it’s good,” he joked.

His recommendation? “Doing a group call and ordering everything,” he said with a laugh.

The menu features four categories: Panimula (appetizers), Inihaw (grilled bites), Ulam (meat dishes) and Panghimagas (dessert). Panimula features Lumpiang Shanghai, a Filipino version of spring rolls, and Pancit Canton, a citrusy noodle dish. Inihaw has dishes like Longganisa Vigan, a pork sausage with a tinge of sweetness. Ulam is served with white rice and offers Sinigang, a sour soup cooked with pork. For dessert, guests can order Turon, a banana spring roll with caramel drizzling.

Looking Ahead

Fontelera said the opening of the restaurant has been his biggest achievement in life so far: “I grew a newfound connection with myself and with the people around me.”

He doesn’t know what’s next, but he wants to continue Boonie’s for as long as he can.

“My goal and my hope is that our concept becomes obsolete,” he said. “Filipino representation shouldn’t be revolutionary in the future, but rather the standard.”

Boonie’s Filipino Restaurant is now open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday at 4337 N Western Ave.!

All photo credits @boonieschicago.