On a Friday morning, Magna chef Carlo Lamagna scores habaneros in his kitchen to the sound of Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night,” tossing the bright-orange peppers into a giant pot of sinigang. Sinigang, a sour soup often made with tamarind, is a Filipino classic, so it fits the theme of his soon-to-open restaurant: The chef painted suns from the country’s flag on the backs of all the chairs, matching the entire restaurant’s flag-inspired color scheme — the napkins and aprons are red and blue, currently scattered all over the restaurant’s tables, and Lamagna hung his grandfather’s flag from the ceiling, for reference. Just as he’s about to let the soup simmer, a group of curious diners walked in off the street. “Sorry,” he says, “Some Filipinos just walked in.”
Lamagna plays host, chatting with the group and offering details about the restaurant: After years of planning and pop-ups, Magna opens Thursday, August 15. The restaurant looks a little chaotic now, but things should be settled by the restaurant’s first friends-and-family dinner that night. He’s planning on making dishes often associated with the cuisine: pancit, or noodles, with chicken skin chicharron; lumpia Shanghai, or fried egg rolls with pork and mushrooms; sinigang, bubbling behind him, with seasonal seafood and grilled lettuces. He and the visitors talk about Filipino food, specifically, how hard it’s been to find; a fellow Filipino chef, the visitor and Lamagna chat about the cultural resistance to cook Filipino food in professional kitchens, and the decision to do so anyway.
This conversation had been a consistent theme in the narrative surrounding Filipino food in the United States. For years, Filipino restaurants have been relatively scarce outside of major cities, and the cuisine has been under-represented or simply disregarded by food media and big-name chefs. Over the last few years, that’s been changing, with the celebration of restaurants like Bad Saint and pop-ups like Pinoy Heritage. Magna has been on the national radar partially for that reason, as another rising-star Filipino restaurant from a notable chef.
Still, amid the exponential buzz, awards, and accolades, Lamagna is keeping things casual at Magna. It’s been a long road to get here; now, it’s just about cooking what he loves with pride. “I want people to see that we are proud of who we are,” he says. And there’s a lot to be proud of.
Lamagna spent his early childhood in the Midwest eating steak and rice. The availability of Filipino food was scarce, but his mother would make dishes like lumpia and pancit. When he was 11, Lamagna moved to the Philippines to live with his father — it was there that the young chef really fell in love with Filipino food. “At first, I was a picky kid,” Lamagna says. “But I was so young, I learned the language in three months, and then I just started exploring.” He remembers sneaking out to get food at 1 a.m., pushing his father’s car out of the garage so he wouldn’t hear it start up. He remembers eating fried chicken necks and fish balls from the street vendors, finding barbecue skewers and rice in the high school cafeteria. He remembers calling his grandmother before heading to her home, so she’d have time to kill a native chicken for her famous chicken soup, tinola. “Family’s always been about food,” he says. “Where do you gather during a party? You gravitate toward the kitchen, the barbecue. Laughs, tears, big life changes, were discussed over food.”
Lamagna left the Philippines in 2001, heading back to the United States for culinary school and his first real-deal food jobs. After culinary school, the chef landed in Chicago at farm-to-table spot North Pond; his father died during his tenure at that restaurant. “I was just promoted to sous chef... It was heartbreaking,” he says. “He told me, ‘I’m proud of you, I’m not worried about you, just promise me that you won’t forget who you are.’”
Lamagna kept working, but he was depressed, lost. He traveled around the world, staging in various kitchens in Europe, before returning to the Philippines. It was there that he rediscovered his love for his culinary and cultural background. “In 2011, I had this drive to cook more Filipino food,” Lamagna remembers. He joined the opening team at Perennial Virant, where he started adding Filipino flavors to the menu. “I learned to explore my heritage, to not be ashamed, to cook with purpose and with soul,” he says of the now-closed hotel restaurant. “That’s what I’m pushing for here.”
In 2013, Lamagna hosted his very first Twisted Filipino pop-up in Evanston, Illinois. It didn’t take long for him to bring his burgeoning dinner series to the West Coast.
Lamagna moved to Portland in 2014, family in tow, to work in the kitchen at hotel restaurant and cocktail destination Clyde Common. It took him a year to get his bearings, but within that year Lamagna was incorporating Filipino flavors into the menu at Clyde. “I was playing off the restaurant’s theme, ‘foreign and domestic.’ What does that even mean, anyway? I guess I’m foreign and domestic, right?” he says.
In 2016, Lamagna introduced Portland to Twisted Filipino, hosting a dinner at the original Holdfast Dining space. The dinners incorporated dishes he ate growing up, with a little fine-dining zhuzh to make it his own. He’d garnish a pork cheek adobo with chicharron, or give the banana-leaf-wrapped rice dumpling suman a savory touch with bone marrow. The pop-up found homes at places like Korean restaurant Han Oak and the since-closed pop-up space Feastly, while he slowly but surely worked on his restaurant. In the time after he left Clyde Common, Lamagna made Plate’s “Chefs to Watch,” won one of StarChef’s 2018 Rising Star awards, and cooked a Filipino-themed James Beard dinner with Francis Ang of San-Francisco pop-up Pinoy Heritage. “To be a part of that community, of forward-things in Filipino food, with all those amazing chefs — that all happened after I left Clyde,” he says.
His cousin came up with the name Magna, which means great in Latin; he added the Kusina, a reference to restaurants he’d frequent in the Philippines. “A Kusina is basically plastic tables outside someone’s home,” he says. “That’s what we were going for.” He had spaces and contractors fall through, but eventually his restaurant space in the former SE Clinton Noho’s finally came together. “We’re finally here,” he says. “It’s not perfect, but it’s home.”
Magna will start small: no booze to start, just dinner, but very serious with the food. A lot of dishes pull directly from his mother and father’s arsenal, with his own twist. For instance, Lamagna’s mother would often take blue crabs, cut them in half, sear them in a wok with ginger, and use the crab fat as a dressing for noodles. Her son’s version of that dish swaps the blue crabs for Dungeness, uses a house-made squid ink noodle, and adds a little brightness with peppers and corn. He uses his father’s simple recipe for adobo and plates it in a pretty way. He makes a salad with local farmer’s market vegetables and tosses it with a salted egg vinaigrette. “My goal is twofold: One is to introduce people to Filipino food, for those who are unfamiliar. The second goal is to connect with people who are familiar,” he says. “It’s all the words you see — adobo, pancit, lumpia — but it’s different. I want people to say, ‘This tastes like my dad’s adobo, but it looks cool.’”
In certain ways, Lamagna sees himself as an ambassador for the cuisine, though he’s not without his frustrations: Some diners, especially Filipinos, have complained about the price of the dishes, by the strict definitions of what is or isn’t Filipino food. “Filipino food is an evolution, not a fusion,” he says. “We take the things that are useful. We’ve been occupied by Spain, Japan, America, but we evolved, we made it our own. That’s how we grow. We don’t stop evolving.”
Magna opens at 5 p.m. August 15. The restaurant is located at 2525 SE Clinton.
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• Previous Magna coverage [EPDX]