KC Pinoy food truck owner-operator Chrissy Nucum, born and raised in the Philippines, knows the secret to her grandmother’s atsara, a pickled papaya salad with carrots, red onion and green onions. The recipe traces back to the family’s roots in Pampanga, a province in the Central Luzon region of the Philippines.
“Filipinos from that region are known as great cooks,” Nucum states as a matter of fact. “The Philippines is an island-nation with more than 7,100 islands.”
When people want to know exactly how many islands exist in the Philippines, the standard reply is to jokingly ask, “Is it high tide or low tide?”
The side dish of atsara is no joke. Sweet with a light vinegar marinade, the thin julienned slivers of papaya are crunchy and refreshing. It’s fruity with a texture similar to coleslaw and perfectly suited for a meal in the tropical climate of the island. It’s just as delicious when consumed standing on a street in the heart of Kansas City.
Today, some of Nucum’s family lives in the United States on the East Coast. Nucum emigrated here in 2000 after graduating from college and turning 21 years old. Stateside, Nucum’s grandmother agreed to share her long-protected recipe. Nucum makes batches of it for family gatherings at holidays.
Now Kansas City can gather around pickled papaya, chicken adobo, skewered grilled pork with sauce, and many other traditional Filipino dishes from the food truck.
Nucum developed the concept for KC Pinoy in July 2015 and tested operations in December of that year at a series of private events. The truck is a converted Kansas City Area Transportation Authority shuttle adapted for food trucking. The food truck’s official public debut was last month. At the Food Truck Crawl in the West Bottoms, a line formed two blocks long for KC Pinoy’s food.
“I ran out of rice early,” Nucum said. “People still came and ordered the meat dishes by itself. I ran out of food in two hours. It was a trial by fire.”
Weekly appearances now rotate Wednesday through Saturday at Hospital Hill on Holmes near Children’s Mercy Hospital, 13th and Oak in downtown KC, 18th Street in the Crossroads, and Macken Park in North Kansas City. KC Pinoy’s weekly schedule is posted on its Facebook page.
Nucum points out that KC Pinoy’s food is not “fusion.” Her dishes are prepared much like they are in the islands.
“I make Filipino food that I like to eat,” Nucum said. “They are regional dishes familiar to Filipinos.”
One special is tapsilog, a Filipino breakfast consisting of cured beef, fried rice, a fried egg on top and sauce from chicken adobo. Chicken adobo, a separate entree itself, is made with chicken thighs braised in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic. The chicken is heated and served the next day with garlic and a reduced sauce, the way Nucum’s family prefers it.
“Each family’s chicken adobo and sauce is different,” Nucum said. “It’s family pride. No one can claim theirs is the best because people will say, ‘Oh no, my mom’s is better.’”
Tocino, a thin-sliced, sweet pork made from her grandmother’s recipe, is cured for 24 hours and briefly dry-aged afterward. Other dishes include chicken barbecue with a sweet traditional banana ketchup glaze, and lechon kawali, or crispy pork belly with a rich lechon sauce. To make sisig, Nucum and her assistants Mena Ramm and Brad Buchele grill pork shoulder and pig ear, serving it with a soy and calamansi sauce. Calamansi, a green-to-orange citrus similar to lime and lemon, is a fixture in Filipino cooking. Pork for the sisig is salt-cured for 24 hours, boiled and fried in a three-day preparation process. These dishes are served with or without fried egg at the customer’s request. Pro tip: Get the fried egg on top.
For merienda — snacks — sample the siomai or steamed pork dumplings.
As Nucum and Ramm prepared plates of chicken adobo with jasmine rice and grilled pork skewers with fried rice and fried egg, one more question needed an answer.
“What does the saying on the back of your T-shirt mean?”
“Kumain ka na?” Nucum said. “It means, ‘Have you eaten?’ or ‘Did you eat?’ Whether you answer yes or no, the result is the same. In a Filipino house, they still feed you.”
— Pete Dulin writes about food trends for KCPT’s Flatland, and is the author of the KC Ale Trail.