Modern Filipino restaurant Magna opens next week in Southeast Portland
Updated Aug 10, 2019; Posted Aug 9, 2019
Even by the restaurant industry’s notoriously bumpy standards, the road to opening Magna Kusina, Portland’s first modern Filipino restaurant, has been rocky for chef Carlo Lamagna.
Lamagna, a Detroit-born, Chicago-trained chef who landed at downtown Portland’s Clyde Common five years ago, first talked with The Oregonian about his plans for Magna in the spring of 2017, shortly after leaving the Ace Hotel-adjacent restaurant but before signing a lease on the space he had been eyeing near his Cully Neighborhood home.
Now, two years, five miles and a dozen migraines’ worth of permitting and construction delays away from that original location, Lamagna stands at the pass of his new restaurant, the former Noho’s Hawaiian Cafe at Southeast 26th Avenue and Clinton Street, ready to open the doors to the public. A Filipino flag hangs overhead. A sinewy knife — a restaurant-warming gift for Lamagna, also a highly trained Filipino martial artist — sits on the counter.
Two and a half years might seem like a long time. But Lamagna has been dreaming about opening a restaurant celebrating his heritage for much longer, since at least 2009, when his father, then on his deathbed, told him to “be true to yourself,” according to Lamagna. Until then, the chef had spent his culinary school days and early restaurant career at well-respected Chicago restaurants seeking to hone his French technique. Still, he found himself sneaking Filipino flavors onto menus wherever he worked, from the tapsilog-inspired pheasant fried couscous at North Pond to the Filipino-style pork belly chicharron at Perennial Verant.
That continued after Lamagna took over the kitchen at Clyde Common in 2014, not long after visiting Portland with then-girlfriend Anjuli Shah-Johnson (the couple are now married, and have two sons). Once here, he interpreted Clyde’s “foreign and domestic” tagline to include a handful of elevated Filipino dishes, including crispy pig’s feet pata pork and shiitake lumpia with a sweet and sour sauce made from over-ripe fruit. He also imported the Twisted Filipino pop-ups he started in 2013, when he was the well-paid but unsatisfied executive chef at a Chicago steakhouse. Those pop-ups will continue in the form of creative, set-price dinners held occasionally at the Magna space.
Those pop-ups are where Lamagna flexes his creative muscles. Most days, Magna (the first syllable’s “g” is hard, like the “mag” in “magazine” — “everyone wants me to be Italian,” Lamagna quips), will serve a menu familiar to even casual Filipino food fans, only one utilizing techniques the chef has learned over his two-decade culinary career. Think juicy adobo, housemade pancit (noodles) with chicken skins and those crispy lumpia you first tried at Clyde.
Back when Magna was to open near Lamagna’s home in Cully, plans called for dishes cooked over live fire. That’s not possible in the current space. But once the new restaurant is up and running, Lamagna hopes to roll out a double-rotisserie rig once a month or so and cook lechon, the deeply bronzed roasted suckling pigs. The resulting roast pork will be sold by the pound with rice, as you might find it in the Philippines.
Though they won’t be on Magna’s opening menu, Lamagna can’t wait to debut his crab-fat noodles: thick, squid-ink-blackened miki noodles with lump crab, house-cured roe, corn or some other seasonal vegetable and a sauce made from ginger, garlic and crab fat. Along with beer and wine, the Magna team is playing around with some house pandan and calamansi lime sodas. Desserts will include ice cream, the crushed-ice cornucopia halo-halo and tupig, a coconut-scented sticky rice cake.
Right around the time Lamagna was hosting his first pop-up in Chicago, chefs from the West and East coasts were working on their own attempts to push Filipino food into the American mainstream. Today, restaurants such as Lasa in Los Angeles, Bad Saint in Washington D.C. and the upcoming Amboy in New York City are helping drive the food conversation in their respective cities. Lamagna hopes to do the same in Portland, where local Filipino food options have been limited to the occasional food cart, pop-up or mom-and-pop restaurant such as Tambayan on Southeast Foster Road.
“Filipino food keeps evolving,” Lamagna says. “And what’s happening is now we’re reaching this tipping point, where we’re either going to make it or break it. To be part of that forward movement is great.”
Magna expects to open on Thursday, August 15 in the former Noho’s Hawaiian Cafe, 2525 S.E. Clinton St., with opening hours running from 5 p.m. until close, Tuesday to Saturday. Brunch and lunch will follow.