From adobo to adobaos: Atlanta’s developing Filipino food scene

Mike Pimentel, owner of Adobo ATL Filipino pop-up, sautees onions and other ingredients for pancit at his new commissary kitchen. HIs modern interpretations of Filipino cuisine reflect his Filipino roots and his American upbringing. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Combined ShapeCaption
Mike Pimentel, owner of Adobo ATL Filipino pop-up, sautees onions and other ingredients for pancit at his new commissary kitchen. HIs modern interpretations of Filipino cuisine reflect his Filipino roots and his American upbringing. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

How an unlikely pop-up lends shape to Atlanta’s Filipino food movement.

The word adobao doesn’t exist in Tagalog or any other Filipino dialect. Mike Pimentel made it up because he needed a name for this fusion dish of pork belly adobo with pickled papaya slaw in a bao (a Chinese steamed bun) that he conceived for his Filipino-American pop-up, Adobo ATL.

Adobo ATL began in 2018 as an Instagram account that Pimentel created to share photos of Filipino food that he cooked in his home kitchen. Four years later, the 33-year-old civil engineer with a master’s degree in business and a full-time day job in supply chain operations for Delta Air Lines has turned Adobo ATL into a serious side project that requires monthly rent for a recently acquired commissary kitchen on Covington Highway.

ExploreAtlanta Culinary Journeys

To understand Pimentel’s rising success, you have to look to his past and also a present that posits Filipino food in the mainstream for the first time in Atlanta’s culinary history.

ExploreRecipes: At home with Filipino flavors
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Silog is a traditional Filipino breakfast plate composed of sinangag (garlic fried rice), itlog (egg) and a protein. For his silog-themed pop-up, Adobo ATL owner Mike Pimentel offered silogs featuring crispy pork (left) and fried Spam (right). Filipino-style egg rolls known as lumpia (center), are a tasty treat any time of day. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Silog is a traditional Filipino breakfast plate composed of sinangag (garlic fried rice), itlog (egg) and a protein. For his silog-themed pop-up, Adobo ATL owner Mike Pimentel offered silogs featuring crispy pork (left) and fried Spam (right). Filipino-style egg rolls known as lumpia (center), are a tasty treat any time of day. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Combined ShapeCaption
Silog is a traditional Filipino breakfast plate composed of sinangag (garlic fried rice), itlog (egg) and a protein. For his silog-themed pop-up, Adobo ATL owner Mike Pimentel offered silogs featuring crispy pork (left) and fried Spam (right). Filipino-style egg rolls known as lumpia (center), are a tasty treat any time of day. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Adobo is the first dish that this son of a Filipino mother and Filipino-Chinese father learned to cook. During Pimentel’s high school days, his working mother of three would call home in the after-school hours and instruct him to get dinner going, walking him through the steps to make this quintessential Filipino dish of stewed chicken or pork in a bracing marinade of vinegar, garlic, soy sauce, bay leaves and peppercorns.

Besides his mom and an aunt who lived nearby, Pimentel learned his way around the kitchen from his lolas — grandmothers — who lived on and off with the family in their home in West Nyack, about an hour’s drive north of New York City.

Pimentel began cooking more frequently in 2014 when he moved to Atlanta to work for Delta. Separated from family, he missed the Filipino food of his upbringing and was hard-pressed to find it, despite Atlanta’s reputation as an international city. Posting photos of his dishes on social media was a way to connect with fellow Filipino-Americans (Fil-Am) and express pride in his heritage.

Through Instagram, he met the few Filipinos in the local food community, including Mia Oriño, who was getting her own pop-up, Kamayan ATL, off the ground. After volunteering to roll lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls) and pitch in on other tasks for Oriño’s events, Pimentel was inspired to start a pop-up and catering business of his own.

Personal approach to Filipino food

“A lot of my recipes are influenced or inspired by the food I grew up eating at home,” Pimentel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August 2020, a year after his pop-up debuted at Monday Night Brewing. “But my approach to Filipino food, what I want to offer, is my experience growing up in the U.S. I don’t want to mislead people into thinking that I grew up in the Philippines, that this is the food of the Philippines, because I grew up here.”

“Mike knows his character and who he is. His food reflects that,” said Oriño.

Pimentel sticks to traditional preparation methods for chicken adobo and lumpia, but other dishes sport a contemporary culinary playfulness that resonates with patrons less concerned about so-called authenticity than taste. There have been egg tarts made bright purple with ube, a sweet potato native to the Philippines. He’s got a Filipino rendition of loaded fries served with a fry sauce featuring Jufran, a brand of Filipino-style ketchup made from bananas. And don’t forget the adobaos.

ExploreTry 5: Five places to try ube desserts in metro Atlanta
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In Filipino cuisine, pancit is a general term that refers to stir-fried noodle dishes. One of the most common is pancit canton, made with wheat noodles. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

In Filipino cuisine, pancit is a general term that refers to stir-fried noodle dishes. One of the most common is pancit canton, made with wheat noodles. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

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In Filipino cuisine, pancit is a general term that refers to stir-fried noodle dishes. One of the most common is pancit canton, made with wheat noodles. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

On a recent Saturday morning, Pimentel was busy in his newly acquired commissary kitchen doing the final prep for a pop-up at Eventide Brewing that afternoon.

“I feel more comfortable trying new ideas,” Pimentel said, commenting on how his food has evolved in the last couple of years.

He’s mindful about preparing dishes that align with today’s vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free eaters. The menu is planned around speed, so customers don’t have to wait long. And he’s begun to focus on presentation of his to-go food. “I used to think as long as it tastes good, it’s OK. Now, I want the food to look inviting.”

ExploreRECIPE: Asian eggplant stars in Filipino omelet
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Mike Pimentel serves his cuisine to the first customers of the day at the Adobo ATL commissary. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Mike Pimentel serves his cuisine to the first customers of the day at the Adobo ATL commissary. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

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Mike Pimentel serves his cuisine to the first customers of the day at the Adobo ATL commissary. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Through trial and error, he’s honed processes to suit his concept and business model, from devising his own three-fingered method of measuring the water-to-rice ratio for a 50-serving rice cooker to calculating fair portion sizes without undercutting prices. His engineer mind reveals itself in a lengthy to-do list on his iPhone, with completion times down to the minute mark.

By 9:30 a.m. that Saturday, the garnishes for bistek rice bowls had been chopped, the rice cooker was doing its thing, and the oven and burners were hot with a catering order for pancit, pork wonton soup and lechon liempo (Filipino-style rolled pork belly). For a one-man show, he appeared unhurried and calm. Yet he confessed to an internal unease.

The pop-up at Eventide was old hat for someone who’s fed plenty of beer guzzlers at local breweries, but Pimentel was nervous about the next day. That Sunday would mark the first time hosting an event in his own space. It meant that “people are coming for me and my food, not because they are going to a brewery.” With Adobo ATL as the reason for the occasion, would he have a crowd?

ExploreCookbook gives Filipino food a seat at the culinary table
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Mike Pimentel and Grace Wynn work in the kitchen just after opening the doors to Adobo ATL on a Sunday afternoon. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Mike Pimentel and Grace Wynn work in the kitchen just after opening the doors to Adobo ATL on a Sunday afternoon. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

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Mike Pimentel and Grace Wynn work in the kitchen just after opening the doors to Adobo ATL on a Sunday afternoon. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Community not competition

Few Filipino restaurants have existed in Atlanta since the first wave of immigrants arrived here in the 1960s and ‘70s. None of these settlers came with the intention of opening a restaurant. They were doctors and nurses — followed by engineers and architects — who came on work visas, according to Juliet Cook, president of the Filipino-American Association of Greater Atlanta. The organization was founded in 1974 as a way for Filipino immigrants “who longed for our culture” to find fellowship, Cook said.

Nearly 50 years later, about 42,000 Georgians — 0.4% of the population — identify fully or partially as ethnically Filipino, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates gathered in 2019. While nearly 60% live in metro Atlanta, they are not clustered in any single city; they are widely spread across the 29 counties that comprise this statistical area.

The combination of a small, scattered population and a culture that engrains in its youth the importance of a college education accounts for the lack of Filipino food-service establishments in greater Atlanta, said Mary Jane Rolen, president of the Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce of Georgia (PACCGA).

Rolen, who was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. in 1988 at age 26, recalled a long-shuttered, short-lived Filipino cafeteria-style restaurant in Jonesboro. Kuya’s Food Express has been around for a while but remains a modest food-court stall at the City Farmers Market in Duluth. Janet’s Kitchen opened for Filipino/soul food sit-down service in 2017 in Decatur but closed by 2019.

But the Fil-Am tide is turning — not just here in Atlanta, but nationally.

In 2019, Filipino-American chef Tom Cunanan took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. A year later, four Fil-Am chefs across the country received Beard nominations. Cookbooks like Alvin Cailan’s 2020 “Amboy” celebrate personal expressions of Filipino-American cuisine and make it accessible to home cooks.

Closer to home, Filipino business partners Hope Webb and Walter Cortado opened full-service Estrellita in Grant Park in 2020. Kamayan ATL, the pop-up by Oriño and her partner Carlo Gan, has blown up. They recently garnered a James Beard Award nomination as emerging chefs and have secured a brick-and-mortar spot on Buford Highway, currently used for pop-up and underground events and scheduled to open as a full-fledged restaurant in late spring. And fledgling Filipino-focused bakery pop-ups are on the rise, with names like Three Lolas Bake Shop, Seven Fingers Baked Goods, Real Deal Bakery, Boalicious and Baker’s Hatt. Followers keep up with their locations on Instagram.

The food at Adobo ATL elicits two typical reactions, said Grace Wynn, who often helps Pimentel at his pop-up events. “It’s either, ‘I’ve never had this before,’ or ‘Oh, my god! Where have you been? I’ve been looking for this in this city.’”

This rings true for Pimentel’s peers.

“The customers I have that are Filipinos have immigrated from the Philippines. They are wanting that taste of home,” said Baker’s Hatt baker-owner Barbara Hattrich, who launched her cottage business in May 2020. “The ones who are American know someone who is Filipino, work with one or are married to one. Others are just like, ‘I just want to know what ube is.’” For Hattrich, the defining moment for Filipino cuisine going mainstream was when Trader Joe’s released its own brand of ube ice cream in 2019.

These entrepreneurs are optimistic that Filipino fare is here to stay because they’ve banded together and support one another. “It’s not competition. There is room for everyone at the table,” said Hattrich.

Explore12 Filipino restaurants and pop-ups to try
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Carlo Gan (from left) and Amor Mia Oriño of Kamayan ATL; Mike Pimentel of Adobo ATL; Walter Cortado and Hope Webb, co-owners of Estrellita, and chef Blesseda Gamble of Estrellita.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Carlo Gan (from left) and Amor Mia Oriño of Kamayan ATL; Mike Pimentel of Adobo ATL; Walter Cortado and Hope Webb, co-owners of Estrellita, and chef Blesseda Gamble of Estrellita.

Credit: Chris Hunt

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Carlo Gan (from left) and Amor Mia Oriño of Kamayan ATL; Mike Pimentel of Adobo ATL; Walter Cortado and Hope Webb, co-owners of Estrellita, and chef Blesseda Gamble of Estrellita.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

“The success of one is the success of all,” said Oriño. “There has always been open communication with each other. We respect everyone’s specialties. It’s a huge pie and everybody should have a part of that pie. It’s arm in arm. We don’t want another restaurant closing. It’s like a slap in the face as a community, as a race, as Filipinos.”

Rolen of PACCGA credits the young Filipino entrepreneurs for elevating the cuisine of their ancestors. “They are more adventurous. They are so savvy with social media that they are able to market the food. They are also more assimilated than past generations. Of course, they bring their friends, introduce them to the food, and it’s a domino effect.”

The proof is in Kamayan ATL’s recent James Beard nomination, said Oriño. “This is saying to everyone else, we are on par with every other cuisine out there. We are deserving.”

Silog Sunday

The weather was not cooperating Sunday morning, the day of the commissary’s public debut, as Pimentel prepared a massive mound of sinangag (fried garlic rice) on the flattop grill while Wynn cut banana leaves to size as plate liners.

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Grace Wynn cuts banana leaves for plating dishes while Mike Pimentel prepares sinangag (garlic fried rice) at his commissary on Covington Highway. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Grace Wynn cuts banana leaves for plating dishes while Mike Pimentel prepares sinangag (garlic fried rice) at his commissary on Covington Highway. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Combined ShapeCaption
Grace Wynn cuts banana leaves for plating dishes while Mike Pimentel prepares sinangag (garlic fried rice) at his commissary on Covington Highway. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Pimentel had planned his menu around silog, a traditional breakfast composed of two key dishes — sinangag and itlog (egg) — plated with any variety of protein. Pimentel would be offering tapsilog (sliced beef rib-eye), tocilog (chicken), fried Spam and sisilog (pork).

As Pimentel methodically worked his pre-service plan, he looked out at the rain, unsure if it would deter patrons. At least three people would come in, he joked, because they had pre-ordered and paid.

The small dining room was in order. A handful of mismatched chairs were placed around square tables. The art on the white walls was scant, but meaningful: an oversized spoon and fork carved in wood, a typical adornment in Filipino households; a couple straw brooms, known as walis, just like the ones at his childhood home; a colored pencil drawing of a sambaguita, the national flower of the Philippines; a print holding the logo of Jollibee, the McDonald’s of the Philippines; another print bearing the San Miguel beer label.

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The decor on the wall at Adobo ATL's commissary reflects Filipino tradition. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitutio

The decor on the wall at Adobo ATL's commissary reflects Filipino tradition. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitutio

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The decor on the wall at Adobo ATL's commissary reflects Filipino tradition. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitutio

Credit: Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitutio

“I didn’t want to be super traditional, but I did want to reflect my heritage,” he said of the decor.

As the clock struck noon, a group of five approached the door.

“People!” shouted Wynn, who assumed her place behind the make-shift ordering counter.

As the day proceeded, a respectable stream of Filipinos and non-Filipinos showed up, including Tony Wilkey, who took his time eating sisilog and veggie lumpia before heading to an Atlanta United match.

“I just really like trying new food,” said Wilkey, a resident of Tucker, whose half-Filipino pal tipped him off to the pop-up.

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Customer Tony Wilkey of Tucker chats with Mike Pimentel while dining on Adobo ATL cuisine. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Customer Tony Wilkey of Tucker chats with Mike Pimentel while dining on Adobo ATL cuisine. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Combined ShapeCaption
Customer Tony Wilkey of Tucker chats with Mike Pimentel while dining on Adobo ATL cuisine. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Pimentel’s wife, Fei Lai, sat in the corner, chatting with a family friend while her husband cooked and ran food to guests. She credits the “network of Filipinos” and the “different visions of what they want to do with Filipino food” for providing a foundation for their fledgling food community and for encouraging her husband on his personal culinary journey.

“A pop-up is lonely,” said Oriño. “But if there is someone there, rooting for you or believing in you, you will see your own worth.”

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