Melvin Trinidad knows when it’s time to shoot his shot.
Trinidad, the Filipino pop-up chef known for his kamayan dinners, was getting to know his best friend Bartek’s new girlfriend, Kiaha, and knew that she had a successful Hawiian food cart business, Hapa Howie’s. He was looking for a collaborator and a place to host his pop-ups, and she and her cart seemed like a good fit. “She was in the honeymoon phase, not just with him, but with his friends, so I thought, ‘She’ll say yes to anything I say,” Trinidad says. So he started calling her Kiki — a nickname she has historically hated, and has grown to love — and asked to start hosting dinners at her cart.
Those pop-ups turned into a new Hawaiian and Filipino food business, Hapa Barkada, which will move into the kitchen at the soon-to-open Pearl District bar, Below by Botanist. The bar — in the space once home to the subterranean, gin-centric cocktail bar Botanist — will host DJs and serve lively, fruity drinks, while Kiaha Kurek and Trinidad churn out Hawaiian plate lunch-esque platters of twice-cooked pork belly adobo, salmon poke, tofu sisig, and more.
Kurek learned to cook out of necessity. Her parents had demanding jobs and her brothers played football, so Kurek ended up cooking most dinners for her family. As an adult, working a corporate job she didn’t love, she would spend her evenings with her grandmother, cooking her dinner. “You should start a restaurant,” her grandmother told her. “You don’t just start a restaurant,” Kurek replied.
Instead, she started a food cart, with the help of family friends Jensen Yip of 808 Grinds and Noho Marchesi of Noho’s Hawaiian Cafe. She served dishes her uncles and father taught her while she was growing up, like mochiko chicken and Hawaiian mac salad, as well as dishes she misses from Hawai‘i, particularly poke. “It was really hard to find the flavors that I loved here because everyone’s like, ‘Oh, we’ll just add 100 different other random ingredients like soybeans,’” she says. “That’s now how we eat it back home.”
Trinidad, similarly, pursued food after a long corporate career. In 2015, he took a sabbatical from Intel to live in Finland, working for a friend’s restaurant there, Café Pispala in Tampere, learning what it took to work in the industry. “We’d wake up at five in the morning to do inventory, clean dishes at two in the morning, drink at two in the morning, and then start again at six in the morning,” he says. “He didn’t drive the passion out of me. So I was like, ‘Let’s keep moving forward.’” He started hosting Filipino pop-ups in 2017, and developed a reputation for dishes like brisket bistek sliders and his crispy pork lumpia. Kurek and Trinidad began their pop-ups in 2021, stumbling upon the Below by Botanist space a few months ago.
Below by Botanist — from co-owners Johnny Wessels, Mike Truong, and Andrew Murdoch — wanted their bar to feel a little livelier than the typical craft cocktail bar, and the new bar feels that way. Walking the line between a club and a lounge, the space is decked out in greens and faux plants, music thumping within a space wrapped in tropical flora wallpaper. The cocktails, meant to be fun and accessible, also include a drink named for Hapa Barkada, made with Filipino rum and pandan.
The food menu, similarly, is meant to fit a bar atmosphere while also staying true to both chefs’ culinary identities. Snacks like poke-stuffed inari pockets, lumpia, poke nachos, and spam musubi precede the plates, which come with a choice of rice (chimichurri rice, garlic rice, or white steamed rice), mac salad, and a choice of protein. Banana-leaf-wrapped kalua pig, poke, and mochiko chicken are Kurek’s contributions, while Trinidad offered his twice-cooked pork belly adobo and tofu sisig. The pork belly is braised in soy sauce, vinegar, and spices before it hits the fryer, finished with togarashi. Another favorite of Trinidad’s is his brisket bistek sliders, which arrives braised in citrus and soy sauce, slathered in caramelized onion aioli, and topped with arugula and an onion ring. The bun is a pandesal from Portland’s Filipino bakery, St. Barbra.
The name of Hapa Barkada, like the business, is a blend of both of their cultures and community. “We’re a mix of best friends,” Trinidad says. “In Hawaiian, ‘hapa’ means mix. And in Tagalog, ‘barkada’ means best friends. And since she married Bartek, aren’t we just a mix of best friends now?”
Below by Botanist and Hapa Barkada open at 1300 NW Lovejoy Street in November.
Correction Thursday, November 2, 2023 at 2:46 p.m.: This story has been corrected to show that Melvin Trinidad still works for Intel.