In the kitchen at North Portland Chinese restaurant XLB, former sous chef Mike Bautista and former line cook Xrysto Castillo used to stir fry ho fun, toss wontons in chile oil, and pleat the restaurant’s namesake soup dumplings. It was here that owners Jasper Shen and Linh Tran asked them what their goals and aspirations were. After discovering they had a similar background, Bautista and Castillo realized they shared dream of opening a Filipino food cart. Shen encouraged them to join forces.
That dream is now a reality: a cart parked in the Lil’ America food pod, a project from Shen and Tran’s restaurant group Win Win. Makulít, a tribute to American drive-thru aesthetics and the food that Bautista and Castillo ate growing up, serves Filipino American fast food. In lieu of Chicken McNuggets and Big Macs, the cart turns out dishes like mustard-brined Chicky Bites and the Big Bunso burger, in which the chefs top a longganisa-and-beef patty with atsara, a pickled salad commonly eaten in the Philippines. There’s also familiar dishes from the Filipino canon, such as pancit Canton, and poutine, made punchy with adobo pulled pork gravy.
Although Bautista and Castillo knew they wanted to offer Filipino food, they had some hesitation as first- and second-generation Filipino Americans, respectively, about cooking a cuisine they didn’t feel fully versed with. Makulít strikes a happy medium between their heritage and how they were raised. “We’re always gonna be a mix; we’re not fully Filipino or fully American,” Bautista says. “So, the concept of our food has been the middle ground: Whatever we cook, it’ll be authentic to our experiences. Doing that made it really liberating to just make the food that we want to make.”
Taking cues from fast food Americana, and of course, Jollibee, finding the brand’s aesthetic was a key starting point for the business. Bautista, who is also an illustrator, designed Makulít’s logo and look with input from Castillo, who found inspiration for the pink-and-yellow color palette from a bag of Calbee shrimp chips. Even though it’s a small operation and in its infancy, Bautista wanted Makulít’s branding to feel like an established American fast food chain. “It’s kind of the idea of, ‘We deserve that image,’ and other Filipino Americans deserve to see that out there.”
Sauces, which any drive-thru aficionado knows is an integral part of the fast food experience, are a point of pride for Bautista and Castillo. At Makulít, each sauce is house-made, from a sweet Filipino barbecue sauce infused with banana ketchup and lemon-lime soda to spiced vinegar sinamak. Visitors can also order their Chicky Bites tossed in a finadene glaze, a Chamorro condiment made with soy sauce.
“We wanted to try to let everything be as loud and as flavorful as it can be because Filipino food is so much about a huge pop of acid or spice or sweetness,” Bautista says. “I always hear in kitchens that, ‘You have to pare it down so the general audience can accept it or understand it,’ but with what we’re trying to go for, we’re going all in.”
Down the line, Makulít hopes to set up a market section at the front of the cart that sells snacks and showcases art and wares from local artists, emulating sari-sari shops found in the Philippines. For now, the team is “excited to share our experiences and our food with people that don’t know much about Filipino food,” Castillo says. “We’re gonna be unapologetically Filipino.”