LINCOLN SQUARE — Former "Top Chef" contestant Chrissy Camba is no shrinking violet, but she was more than happy to quietly introduce her new restaurant Laughing Bird with little fanfare aside from a Facebook post last weekend.
Laughing Bird takes over real estate formerly occupied by Tank Sushi at 4514 N. Lincoln Ave.
"I was worried that we were going to get slammed, we were still working on logistics in the kitchen," said Camba, formerly of Bar Pastoral. "As soon as people know that we're open, it's going to get crazy."
The new spot is owner Franco Gianni's bet that the time for Filipino-American food has come.
Patty Wetli chats with DNAinfo Radio about Laughing Bird:
"You just don't see it in Chicago," he said.
After 10 years of running Tank, Gianni had lost his excitement for sushi — "It's available at gas stations and Walgreens" — and was casting about for a new concept. When he met Camba, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, he had his answer: He would build a restaurant around Camba's more upscale interpretation of her native cuisine.
"I was very shocked and very grateful," Camba said. "That means he believes in me."
Though she had previously expressed a desire to open up a charcuterie-centric restaurant — or a taqueria — Camba gladly shifted gears.
"I'm not very analytical, I go a lot by feeling," she said. "This is the right time, the right moment, and you don't really know why."
In crafting Laughing Bird's menu, Camba is attempting to put her own stamp on a cuisine that defies easy definition.
"It's kind of a fusion between Spanish and Chinese and American food," she said. "You'll see spaghetti with red sauce and hot dogs on top. Growing up, for breakfast I would have pork chops, rice, omelets and sausage links."
The most traditional offering at Laughing Bird is Camba's take on chicken adobo — adobo being a process of marinating meat or vegetables.
Every Filipino family, she said, has a recipe for chicken adobo, which happens to be her go-to comfort food dish. Camba's evolved to include pickled green papaya and a Laughing Bird-branded Co-Op hot sauce.
She took dinuguan, a pork blood stew, and reduced it to a sauce served with charred octopus. Coconut jam, a common Filipino spread, and pandesal, a popular Filipino bread, show up on the menu as part of an appetizer featuring burrata cheese.
"I want [diners] to walk away having a better feeling of what Filipino food is," said Camba, who remains mystified that, given the size of the Filipino population in Chicago, "you don't see Filipino restaurants anywhere."
There is, actually, a casual Filipino restaurant just a few blocks from Laughing Bird. Isla Pilipina, a "Check, Please!"-approved BYOB joint, occupies a storefront space in a strip mall on Lawrence Avenue. It's where Camba goes when she wants a fix of home-style cooking and the two are in no way competitors, she would like to make clear.
"Isla does a great job with traditional Filipino. We completely support them. If you have two new American restaurants, no one says they're the same," said Camba. "It's like having Goosefoot and Elizabeth. That's been hard to convey."
"He did a tasting and everything was fricking amazing," she said. "It made my tasting look like a schlump."
The two share digs in Lincoln Square, with Camba commuting just blocks to work.
"I still ride my bike here because at night I'm like, 'I'm too tired to walk home,'" she said.
Not that Camba's complaining.
"I feel like I'm lucky to be doing something I'd have no problem doing 24 hours a day — and having fun," she said.