Nick’s on Mission opened with a splash in San Francisco’s Filipino cultural district this past fall, announcing itself as the city’s first and only fully vegan Filipino restaurant — a mantle that chef and co-owner Reina Montenegro wore proudly even when she sometimes caught flack from meat-loving Filipinos. Temporarily closed since the start of shelter in place, the restaurant is now the latest victim of the coronavirus crisis: Last week, both Nick’s on Mission and the restaurant’s South San Francisco location, Nick’s on Grand, permanently closed, VegNews was first to report. Moving forward, Montenegro will focus instead on her new delivery-focused online business, Chef Reina, which sells vegan Filipino meal kits and house-made vegan meats.
Montenegro, for her part, is oddly sanguine about her departure from the restaurant business. “I feel like COVID is the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “I couldn’t be happier.”
The “worst” is easy enough to understand. Montenegro says the decision to close the two restaurants was a fairly easy one to make. She’d already been forced to lay off all of her employees at the start of the pandemic, and even at the South San Francisco location that remained open, takeout just wasn’t nearly enough to sustain the business. “We have almost 3,000 square feet of space that we are not using at all,” Montenegro says. “The dine-in business, it’s not going to improve anytime soon. It’s not ever going to be the same.”
Why the chef feels like these pandemic months have also been the “best” is a little bit harder to parse out, but Montenegro explains that it has a lot to do with her own complicated feelings about the “Nick’s” brand. Back in 2016, the chef and her business partner had purchased their first restaurant in Daly City, Nick’s Kitchen, when its owners — including the chef, Nick — decided to retire. It was a little “hole-in-the-wall” Filipino restaurant with a solid following, Montenegro says, and in the end she just decided it’d be easier to keep the name rather than start over from scratch. After all, no one had any idea who Reina Montenegro was at the time.
But then the business continued to evolve. She was already vegan when she bought the restaurant, but a year later, she gave the menu a fully plant-based revamp — tired, she says, of cooking food she wouldn’t even eat herself. And then, before she knew it, she’d opened a string of three vegan “Nick’s” restaurants (the Daly City shop closed in 2018), none of which anything to do with anyone named Nick. At the heart of the issue, Montenegro says, was that she felt scared to put her own name out there — scared to center herself.
“I used Nick’s to revolutionize this brand of heavy meat-eating food, but I never took credit for it, really,” Montenegro says. “It was like we turned Nick vegan.”
In the end, Montenegro says, the challenges of the pandemic wound up rendering those fears irrelevant, and the chef is now embracing the new “Chef Reina” brand name. It’ll be the first business she’s started entirely on her own — no partners, no investors — and she’s reveling in the freedom that gives her.
Meanwhile, even through the struggles of the past several months, Montenegro says she’s never once questioned the mainstream commercial viability of vegan Filipino food: “I have never been shaken about that belief system. If anything I am fueled by it even more.” It’s just that now she’s shifted her focus to meal kits and ready-to-heat prepared meals, which is what she thinks will be in demand for the foreseeable future.
For now, Montenegro is running the business out of a commissary kitchen in Daly City, but later this year, she expects to move it to a new space of her own, an undisclosed location on the Peninsula. She’s already started taking online orders, and she even has dreams of taking the business national — shipping boxes of frozen vegan meats across the country. After all, Montenegro believes there isn’t really anyone else out there who’s specializing in vegan versions of Filipino meats — the tocino (traditionally cured pork) that she makes with wheat gluten, for instance, or the sisig she makes with tofu and mushrooms. And if similar vegan variations do exist in other places, she doesn’t believe anyone else is making dishes as good, and as flavorful, as hers.
“And I’m not afraid,” Montenegro says. “Haters, come on, let’s go.”