Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 24, 2017

River City Roundabout: Pop in to Calamansi Cafe’s pop-ups

Angie Adams, owner of Filipino-themed pop-up restaurant Calamansi Cafe, fills a bowl with her sotanghon soup. - Photograph by David Laprad

Angie Adams remembers growing up in the jungle mountains of the Philippines and begging her grandmother to make arroz caldo, or rice porridge.

Adams’ grandmother would say, “My grandchild, I don’t have any presents for your birthday.” Adams would reply, “I don’t want presents. Just make me your arroz caldo.”

As Adams’ grandmother made the delicious soup, the observant young girl watched and learned. Then she not only held on to the memory of her grandmother’s loving gesture but also the recipe, and years later is able to replicate it in her own kitchen.

The Philippines serve as the inspiration for many of Adams’ recipes. But you don’t need to travel to the mountain jungles of her home country to try them.

Rather, you can browse the Facebook page of her Chattanooga pop-up restaurant, Calamansi Cafe, to find out where she’ll be serving lunch or dinner and then show up before the food runs out.

The pictures of Adams’ munggo guisado and sotanghon soup drew me to her pop-up during a recent chilly Saturday lunch hour. She was setting up at Chattanooga WorkSpace, which is only a few blocks from where I work, and her dishes looked filling and adventurous.

Chattanooga WorkSpace is an enclave of private artist studios, so when you walk through the front door, you don’t expect to be embraced by the mouthwatering aroma of sautéed garlic and onions, but that’s what happened when I arrived. I could have followed the signs, but I followed my nose, instead.

My nose did not betray me. As I entered the space where Adams had set up, I saw several tables covered with black cloths to my left and an order station to my right. Behind that was the source of the aroma that had drawn me in – two roasters filled with steaming munggo guisado and sotanghon soup. Mmm... Lunch was going to be good!

Before I ordered – and before customers started pouring in – I asked Adams to sit down with me and talk about her cafe and its dishes.

Adams, 40, opened Calamansi Cafe in January of this year to introduce Filipino cuisine to people in Chattanooga. She’d been a stay-at-home mom for several years and was ready to get out of the house and do something she loved.

Adams wanted to open a restaurant because she’d always enjoyed cooking – and because her friends and family members had always told her she should open one – but she was hesitant because she knew it would be a major undertaking.

So, instead of jumping feet first into a brick-and-mortar or even a food truck, Adams decided to launch a pop-up – a restaurant that prepares its food in a commercial kitchen and then serves it elsewhere in town.

She also took the business incubator class at LAUNCH Chattanooga to learn the ins and outs of running a restaurant. “I wanted to do things right,” she says.

Adams adds she believed the pop-up concept would not only allow her to build a foundation for future growth but also serve as a marketing tool.

“I wanted people to meet me and my family and get to know us as a business.’’

Adams chose Filipino cuisine because the culture of her home country, where she lived until she was eight, is still a big part of who she is. But she also chose to honor her U.S. roots by serving Filipino American fusion.

But the food still lies close to its origins. The “fusion” part comes in when Adams needs to replace an ingredient that’s not readily available in the U.S. with something familiar and accessible. For example, her sotanghon soup recipe calls for kangkong, a spinach-like green found in the waters of the Philippines.

She substitutes this unattainable ingredient with bok choy, a type of Chinese cabbage.

Adams’ first pop-ups were dinner events at various spots around town. Each meal came with an appetizer, noodles, two entrees and dessert. These proved popular, so Adams expanded her pop-ups to include lunch.

When Adams said “lunch,” I decided it was time to stop talking about her food and eat some of it. On that particular Saturday, Adams was hosting a vegan pop-up.

She also prepares dishes with different meats, including chicken and fish, but on this day it was all about the veggies. 

“My sister is vegan, so if I was going to have a restaurant, I wasn’t going to leave her out,” she points out. “I look at my customers the same way. You’re my family. I want to take care of you and make sure we have something you can enjoy.”

When I told Adams I enjoy meat, she laughed and told me munggo guisado is usually made with fried fish but that she’d found a soy-based ingredient that, once fried, tasted like fish and has a similar texture. Given the weather outside, though, I went with the sotanghon soup.

Made with vegetable broth, glass noodles, ginger, garlic, shallots, chayote, baby bok choy and tofu and topped with carrots, celery, watercress and fried garlic, the soup is crazy delicious and hearty.

I devoured every bite, drank every drop of the warm broth and regretted reaching the bottom of my bowl. Best of all – the soup and the Filipino sweet rolls Adams served with it satisfied me until dinner.

If I’d gone with the munggo guisado instead, I would have enjoyed a stew of vegetable broth, sweet potato leaves, black fungus (an edible jelly fungus with several purported benefits including improved circulation and lower cholesterol) and fried vegan yuba fish. This is served over a mound of steamed rice.

While I enjoyed the pastries, I wished Adams hadn’t told me about her most popular dinner dessert – an ube cheesecake with a roasted marshmallow topping. Ube is a root vegetable also known as the purple yam. In Filipino cuisine, it’s used in many types of sweet treats, including ice cream.

“Vegetables like ube are used in different ways than in the U.S.,” Adams explains.

And therein lies the adventure. As I walked back to the office, I could not have been more pleased with lunch or my host, who took the time to make each of her patrons feel individually welcomed and answered every question about the food.

Adams plans to deploy a food truck at some point and even has a small brick-and-mortal similar in size to the tiny Taqueria Jalisco at Miller Plaza in mind. Even then, she’ll continue the pop-ups, which have proven to be popular.

Chattanoogans tend to have an open mind when it comes to trying new cuisine, especially ethnic foods. This, combined with Adams’ tasty dishes and thoughtful approach to slowly growing her business will hopefully ensure that Filipino food hasn’t just arrived in the Scenic City but that it’s here to stay.