Filipino Food Goes Vegetarian
No Worries is the only vegetarian Filipino restaurant in the United States. Located at 1442 Franklin Street in Oakland, California, the restaurant was founded by Jay-Ar Isagani Pugao, who has been vegan for thirteen years. He uses traditional Filipino cuisine as the basis for his menu, but of course, he has adapted them to meatless versions.
The restaurant uses soy beef in the lumpia, with shredded cabbage, peas and carrots hand-rolled with an eggless rice wrapper, then deep fried, with a sweet chili sauce for dipping. The vegetarian adobo uses soy chicken strips instead of real chicken. Adobo chicken is one of the most popular dishes in the Philipines. Afritada is a stew, and another popuar item–his is made from soy chicken, potatoes, bel peppers and green peas melted into a tomato based sauce. The Pancit at No Worries is rice noodles cooked in vegetable broth, combined with thinly sliced soy chicken, cabbage, celery and carrots, and seasoned with pepper, soy sauce and lemon juice. These are just a few examples of the options available at Jay-Ar’s restaurant.
When and why did you first get the idea to start making vegetarian Filipino food?
I first got the idea to become vegetarian because my mom had a heart attack many years ago. Her doctor suggested that it was due to stress and diet. She decided to cook better for herself and I wanted to support her as much as I could. So I decided to become vegetarian knowing that the elimination of meat from her diet would increase her chances of cancer derived from meat. She used to cook two meals each time we ate, one for herself and one for the rest of the family. I thought I could be more help if I was eating better as she was.
At your restaurant, which foods do you recommend for people who haven’t ever had Filipino food?
I always suggest the foods that contain ingredients that are a little more universal and appealing. Afritada is the dish that I recommend because it is very much like a stew, which most cultures are familiar with. But if they’re more adventurous, I suggest the popular Filipino flavors like Soy Chicken Adobo or Kare-Kare.
Are there any other vegetarian Filipino restaurants in the U.S.? Or the Philippines?
I don’t know about the Philippines. But in the US, we are the only existing establishment providing Filipino vegan food.
What meat substitutes do you use, and why?
I use non-GMO soy proteins that I get from a local source in downtown Oakland. There are several kinds that have different textures. I use certain ones that fit the dish the most. For example, the soy chicken Adobo has a smoked flavor that is similar to real chicken breast, while the Bistek soy beef is a tougher stripped protein which is similar to a real tendon texture.
Are you planning to introduce any new foods at the restaurant in the future?
Yes, we want to introduce a brunch menu on the weekends.
What are your favorite vegetarian foods?
I love other vegetarian restaurants like Golden Lotus (Vietnamese cuisine), Flacos (Mexican food), and Saturn (American diner). These are places I go to regularly because the food is different from what I make.
Do you believe your vegetarian items are healthier than traditional Filipino dishes?
Some, yes. Simply because traditional dishes are very meat heavy and many sources of sicknesses and cancers come from the intake of meat. So just based on that fact, yes.
Will you ever open more restaurants of the same type, but in different locations?
I have potential investors who want to see us in SF Mission district, Portland, and even in Toronto.
Your restaurant has many reviews on Yelp and a four star rating (this is a very good rating). Do you ever read customer comments and use them to make adjustments to the menu?
Well, I’m actually trying to be better at not taking the Yelp reviews so personal. Cooking is my love and art and so when people leave comments that aren’t so positive I tend to feel like it is an attack on my art. However, I have grown from this sentiment and now able to see what it is controllable, what I can change, and what is consistent. If I keep in mind that people’s palates will always be different from each others, and people will always have an opinion, it helps me differentiate what it is that is suitable for the growth of the business. Certainly there have been comments that I’ve adjusted on the menu, especially in the beginning, that I’ve applied. For example, one main comment was that our menu didn’t offer enough vegetable only dishes, so we adjusted to that.
Image Credit: Jay-Ar Pugao