Makulít’s Filipino American Fast Food Mashups Are an Early Standout at the New Lil’ America Cart Pod

“Filipino food is very in your face, very loud. We don’t want to tone it down.”

“The Chicky Bites…should I make them sticky?” I asked before putting in my order at Makulít.

“You should make them sticky,” Xrysto Castillo answered.

One bite in, I knew why.

“They’re probably my favorite thing on our menu,” says Castillo, co-owner of and co-chef at Makulít, a Filipino American fast food cart in Lil’ America, Southeast Stark Street’s much-reported-on new cart pod highlighting BIPOC and LBGTQ+ owners. Crackly, crusty bites of mustard-fried chicken thigh ($12 not sticky, $13 sticky) are tossed with Fresno peppers and scallions, coated in a bird’s eye chile sauce and then served over tender steamed rice. The dish is salty, vinegar forward and instantly familiar.

“One of our neighbors calls it orange chicken, and we’re just like, yes, yes,” says Makulít’s other co-chef and owner, Mike Bautista, but it isn’t quite so. The soul of the glaze is finadene, a popular soy sauce-based condiment in Filipino cooking that’s used on “anything,” as Bautista puts it: “rice, barbecue, chicken. We added sugar to make it like a sweet-and-sour sauce.”

Every dish on the menu at Makulít seems to be a challenge rooted in that balance: How can Castillo and Bautista infuse fast food staples with Filipino flavors, which most of their clientele have never tasted?

“We knew that there would be people who hadn’t had Filipino food at any level,” Bautista says. “There’s a lot of items we have to explain, but it’s like, here’s the thing you’ve never heard of, in a familiar context. There’s the Filipino side we grew up eating and loving, and then there’s the American food that we grew up eating and loving.”

The poutine is one example of Makulít’s melding the familiar with the unfamiliar, resulting in a vastly improved take on an appetizer found on many Portland menus. Its adobo version of the dish ($13), topped with a punchy braised pork gravy in lieu of the standard beef sauce, is one of those first-bite eye-poppers that should be eaten in the company of others simply to relish the shared reactions of delight. I’m one to find a classic poutine pretty repetitive after the first few mouthfuls, given its piling of additional salt and fat on top of an already salty-fatty base. But here, each bite offers a jolt of black pepper and strong acidity, making me want to plow through the pile of melty cheese curds and crispy-gone-soggy potatoes in an animalistic fashion. This dish made me “get” poutine.

“We want our food to represent us the best it can,” Castillo says. “One of the big things is our playfulness in the kitchen. Filipino food is very in your face, very loud. We don’t want to tone it down.”

“Fun is the only barometer we have,” Bautista says. “If we have an idea for an item and think ‘That’s fun,’ we try it out.”

The most fun and playful dish is arguably the Big Bunso ($11), which looks like a classic drive-in cheeseburger—toasted Franz bun, shredded iceberg, tomato, onion and melty cheddar that’s started to crisp at the edges from contact with the griddle. But, as with the two previous dishes, I was launched in a completely unexpected direction on first bite.

“We present it like it’s just regular fast food, but…no,” Castillo says, laughing.

The longanisa sausage patty is packed with warm spice, while atsara—a mix of pickled papaya, carrot, daikon and bell pepper—cranks up the decibel level. The resulting flavor combo lands somewhere between burger, meatloaf sandwich, and banh mi.

Other dishes on the menu play a little more old school in their approach, like the pancit Canton ($12)—chewy stir-fried yakisoba noodles mixed with colorful and crisp charred snap peas, red cabbage and carrots. On a recent sunny afternoon, guests flowed in and out of neighboring Fracture Brewing with beer flights and sat in oversized lawn chairs while snacking on shareable and portable lumpia (3 for $7 or 6 for $13)—crunchy fried spring rolls with a rich meat filling and spiced vinegar dip.

“It’s an artistic expression,” says Bautista, who is also an illustrator and created the cart’s poppy pink and yellow logo. “We don’t really consider ourselves chefs. We do all of it. It takes longer, but it also means we get to do everything. We have free range of creativity and how we want to put ourselves out there.”

In my opinion, everything’s working.

EAT: Makulít, 1015 SE Stark St., @makulitpdx. Noon-7 pm Wednesday-Thursday, 4-9 pm Friday-Saturday.

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