I have to admit that, in spite of my having been a world traveler for the past many decades, every time I am out of the country, I can’t last more than a week without having Filipino food…or, at the very least, something Asian. There is a magical element in our cuisine that makes me hanker for it, in spite of the juicy steaks, melt-in-your-mouth salmon, or other French culinary delights that I can easily have access to.
Having been away from home for more than a week now, I have grown more fidgety with each passing hour. My taste buds are going crazy, as I mentally visualize the delectable Pinoy table fare that I’m used to at home. So, when my younger sister, who I’m visiting here in Portland, told me about this very popular Filipino restaurant in the city, I wanted to fly there right away.
In a quiet neighborhood in the Southeast part of town stands Magna Kusina, which has been featured many times on Portland’s lifestyle TV shows and newspapers because of its exquisite Filipino menu and its multi-awarded chef/owner. My sister and I arrived 30 minutes ahead of our appointed time, and preferred to wait inside the packed restaurant to protect ourselves from the nasty 1-degree Celsius cold outside.
While waiting for our table, I noticed right away the restaurant’s logo…a fork and a spoon, and tables were set with only a fork and a spoon…no knife. Looking around the other tables occupied by Americans, I noticed that every one of them used a fork and spoon only, the way we, Filipinos, would while dining. I found out later on from our waiter that almost all the restaurant’s patrons are Americans, yet hardly anybody asks for a knife. And I was happy to see them enjoying Filipino food. The old couple at the table beside us was having Laing, while the youngsters across us feasted on Sisig.
My sister and I wanted to try as many of the dishes as we could, so we ordered Sinigang, Pancit Bihon, Fried Lumpia, and Chicken Barbecue. The restaurant’s Menu also listed Lumpiang Ubod, Oxtail Kare-Kare, Hipon, Isaw, Bistek, and many more. In a matter of minutes, our orders were served and we were in culinary heaven. Every bite we took had that magical Filipino taste I have been craving for the past few days. It made me feel like I was back home!
Of course, my meal is never complete without the last course, so I ordered Biko and my sister went for the Leche Flan. And there we were, in seventh heaven, as we savored every teaspoonful of our sweet indulgence. The Biko had a sprinkling of Polvoron on it and my sister’s Leche Flan was topped with a generous amount of pineapple chunks.
After we settled our bill, I chatted with the 42-year-old chef/owner, Carlo Lamagna, and found out that he was born in the US and lived in Detroit until he was 11, when he returned to Pangasinan to continue his high school and college education. It was at this time that his passion for cooking started to develop because everybody in his family is a good cook.
At the age of 20, he moved back to Michigan to be with his family and begin his culinary career. He worked at several restaurants while attending culinary school. He later armed himself with a diploma from the Culinary Institute of America and, thereafter, perfected his craft through the years until he decided to open Magna Kusina.
The restaurant opened in 2019 and was named Portland’s Restaurant of the Year. In 2021, Food and Wine publication awarded him as the Best New Chef, and during last year’s Restaurant and Chefs Awards, he was nominated as Best Chef in the Northwest and Pacific.
What I like about Chef Carlo is that he keeps watch over every dish produced in his kitchen and checks on it closely before the waiters serve it to the customers. What is even more commendable is his goal to share the flavor of Filipino food with the rest of the world and kudos to him because he certainly is on his way to elevating our cuisine to international acclaim.
Pretty soon, it won’t be a surprise to have some of my American friends go crazy over Sisig, Sinigang, or Kare-Kare. Wouldn’t you be if it’s produced by Chef Carlo’s magic hands?
YOUR MONDAY CHUCKLE
RESTAURANT PATRON: Waiter, I’d like a bottle of wine.
WAITER: What year, sir?
PATRON: Well, I’d like it right now.
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