A paper tiki mask is the only indication that the door it’s affixed to leads somewhere other than a dive bar. Ring the doorbell and walk through the kitchen, however, and you’ll be transported to an island-themed lounge that’s equal parts kitschy and comfortable.
"This is just from people’s houses, like my mom’s," says Allan Pineda, pointing to the wood carvings, water-buffalo horns and rattan furniture decorating the room. "A lot of the stuff you see in here, you’d see in a Filipino’s house back in the day — like second-wave immigrants in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they’d bring this stuff home (from the Philippines)."
Pineda is a local chef and part of the team behind the Bahay Kubo Tiki Bar, a pop-up Filipino drinking and dining experience hosted weekly at an undisclosed Winnipeg establishment.
The details are hush-hush because the temporary eatery is meant to operate like a speakeasy. The dinners are an offshoot of Baon Manila Nights, which Pineda started as a way to highlight Winnipeg’s Filipino culinary scene.
The tiki bar craze got its start in post-Prohibition-era California, where North American restaurateurs created escapist lounges with motifs appropriated from different South Pacific cultures. While Pineda is mindful of tiki’s place as a god-like figure in Māori, Hawiian and other Polynesian traditions, he wanted to give the restaurant theme a Filipino twist.
"We have our own gods, so we catered it that way," he says. "We’re paying homage to that."
The name Bahay Kubo is a reference to the iconic stilt huts typically made of bamboo and nipa grass that are indigenous to the Philippines. Cultural information is presented in chalk on the walls of the pop-up restaurant.
"I want to open up a tiki bar, so this is like proof of concept," says Pineda. "Filipinos were huge in the tiki scene because they were the low-income workers making the drinks in San Francisco."
Dinner is served under black lights while a DJ spins ‘90s hip-hop and R&B jams. The space is a former pizza joint with 26 seats and a long bar, although you won’t find any bottles of alcohol beyond the wood. The pop-ups are dry events, owing both to the lack of a liquor licence and Pineda’s personal decision to stop drinking.
Coming up with a non-alcoholic cocktail list has been an interesting adventure for bartender Conrado Nathaniel Penales.
"It is a challenge; it’s definitely broadened my perspective on making cocktails for people," Penales says. "Since there’s no alcohol, I have to bring out additional flavours in other herbs and spices I typically wouldn’t use."
One such experiment was a drink with roasted pumpkin and carrot purée topped with sage, fresh lime juice and ginger beer. Penales has also created zero-proof versions of piña coladas, mules and mojitos made with tropical fruits such as coconut, mango, lychee berry and tamarind. His play on a dark ‘n’ stormy — a highball typically made with rum, ginger beer and lime — features a deep purple ube syrup instead of the alcoholic base.
"I think it’s shifting a little bit more towards (sober cocktails)," Penales says of public reception. "People are more knowledgeable and taking better care of themselves, so they don’t want to be having alcohol."
The drink menu is paired with Filipino fusion fare courtesy of chef Eejay Chua. His goal is to highlight traditional flavours and ingredients in popular western dishes.
"All the Filipino restaurants here are similar: you have your rice and… like a side dish," Chua says. "I want to do pasta with a Filipino flavour or say a French galantine (a stuffed chicken dish) with Filipino chicken adobo."
For Bahay Kubo, Chua has gone with Hawiian, Japanese and Mexican influences. The menu includes sisig tacos made with pork belly, fried chicken wrapped in nori, Parmesan truffle fries and breaded Spam fries — the latter is served in a tin of the canned pork product.
So far, Chua says the novel concept has been well-received by guests.
"I’ve been enjoying seeing people from different places every week, especially during COVID when we don’t get to really see people," he says. "Most of the bars here are clubs and they don’t really have this kind of vibe where, especially for the Filipino people who come in here, they’re like, ‘Ah, it feels like I’m at home.’"
The Bahay Kubo Tiki Bar runs every Thursday from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. until mid-December. Send a message to @bahaykubotikibar on Instagram to reserve a seat.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.