Filipino Restaurant Kusina Serves Lechon Kawali and Halo
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Filipino Restaurant Kusina Serves Lechon Kawali and Halo

Aug 09, 2023

Chef Jailin Tabares has vivid memories of Larsian night market on her home island of Cebu in the Philippines: skewers of pork, chicken, and chorizo blistering on the grill, their smoky scent tempered by the sweet tang of banana ketchup and soy. She ate there often as a college student. Tabares and her husband Scott Zimmer opened their restaurant Kusina out in Mounds View last year, but it was only this July that she perfected her own barbecue marinade, a garlic-rich recipe that transports her back to Larsian. She marinates the chunks of pork for a full 24 hours before tightly compressing them on a sturdy bamboo skewer.

Tabares has been a chef for 35 years — she spent much of that time cooking for thousands at St. Paul’s Intercontinental Hotel. Back in Cebu, where she was raised, her father was a deep sea fisherman (mostly red snapper, she says), her mother a respected cook. “I grew up with no refrigeration, no electricity,” says Tabares. “It was a very simple life. You’d jump in the water and get some seaweed to make seaweed salad.” All of her dishes are based on family recipes. Her mother, Lola Nating, helps out in the kitchen at Kusina, chopping large mounds of vegetables for pork menudo and nilat-ang baboy — 50 pounds of carrots a week, 30 pounds of potatoes — dry-eyed and impervious to onion vapors. She’s an honorary lola to many customers, Tabares says.

The throughline of Kusina’s menu is pork: slow-cooked humba stewed with black beans; a hunk of pork resting beside silky strips of cabbage and corn in the nilat-ang baboy soup; lechon kawali (pork belly) with a crispy outer bark, served with sambal and vinegar for dipping. Tabares’ lumpia are tightly wrapped, the fried rice wrappers encasing an herbed pork center. All that meatiness is balanced by well-placed vegetables: squash with ample fresh ginger and funky bagoong (shrimp paste) in the pinakbet; earthy carrots and potatoes in the menudo. Jailin says she gets many of her vegetables from local farmers markets.

The dinuguan recipe, a pork blood stew, comes from Tabares’ father. “He taught me how to cook that when I was a little girl,” says Tabares. But she made an adaptation to the recipe, adding coconut milk. “It makes it sweeter and smoother. You can’t taste the iron. We cook it with a lot of herbs.”

Zimmer did Kusina’s interiors himself, carving the long wooden counter, adding bamboo features, and outfitting the restaurant with lush live plants. He says that since Kusina opened a year ago the demand has been so high that he and Tabares are on the hunt for a commissary kitchen. They have regulars that travel from as far as Winnipeg, Canada for chicken adobo and halo-halo (Kusina’s features an ultra-dense ube ice cream made with a sweetened condensed milk base and crowned with a square of leche flan). One group of nurses from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester sometimes travels two hours north for an extended lunch break, stocking up on food for the week.

He and Tabarese have been overwhelmed by the response. “Every single person who comes into this restaurant, I want them to feel at home — I don’t want them to feel that it’s a restaurant,” says Tabares. “Everyone says they can taste the love.”

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