photo credit: Sandy Noto
It can be uncomfortable when you walk into a party and immediately get the feeling that the hosts have been arguing about something - who was supposed to pick up brie for the cheese tray, maybe, or the best way to calm their dachshund around guests. Hopefully, making a beeline for the drinks and some Trader Joe’s mushroom turnovers will distract you from the tension you’re sensing. The atmosphere at Cebu, a Filipino restaurant in Wicker Park, can feel a little like that tense party. But if you focus on the tasty food and whoever you’re with, you’ll have a good time.
Thankfully, the great dishes on Cebu’s menu make it possible to ignore what you’re pretty sure are the sounds of the staff arguing with each other. An intensely flavorful chicken adobo and perfectly tender pork BBQ skewers are both great ways to keep yourself occupied. The beef tapa is also very good, with slightly caramelized meat marinated in a delicious calamansi and soy sauce, and ordering the soft and sweet housemade pandesal buns is non-negotiable - they’re delicious and they have to be on the table. As you eat, you can watch the halo-halo being carefully assembled at the dessert station, which is also a soothing diversion.
When food falls short here, it’s when it’s inconsistent. The lumpia is occasionally burnt and greasy. Sometimes the egg on the sisiq is undercooked, sometimes it’s overcooked. The specials are a mixed bag of hits like the moist pork belly lechon with crispy skin and misses like a very dry adobo burger that comes with some unbearably salty fries. But everything is affordable enough that it’s not the end of the world if you play lumpia roulette and lose.
Even if you are winning at roulette, you probably still won’t be able to avoid hearing what’s going on behind the scenes here. The restaurant’s small, narrow space and semi-open kitchen mean that everything - whether it’s snarky back-and-forths or fallout from a messed-up drink order - is noticeable. It’s a lot like your party hosts whisper-fighting in the hallway of their tiny apartment: at best it’s a little awkward, at worst it’s downright unpleasant. Cebu does have a very nice, secluded back patio, though, and if you sit out there, you and your dinner date can focus on your own petty arguments.
Even if their stressed-out party hosts can’t get it together, that doesn’t mean the guests can’t still have fun. If there are drinks, good food, and other partygoers to keep you occupied, you can leave the couple to discuss the dachshund’s anxiety levels among themselves. The same applies at Cebu. Get some chicken adobo and just try to let the tension roll off your back. After all, it gives you something to talk about on the way home.
The rolls are perfectly soft and slightly sweet, served with a honey butter you’ll want to ask for about four extra servings of. You need these.
The chicken adobo is another must order. The bone-in chicken thigh is tender, and the vinegary adobo sauce is perfectly balanced with some coconut milk. Order it with a side of garlic rice and save some pandesal to soak up whatever’s left of the sauce.
The perfectly tender pork shoulder is served on skewers and marinated in a mixture of pineapple, ketchup, soy sauce, and garlic. It’s sweet, savory, and absolutely delicious.
We really like this. The steak slices are marinated in soy sauce and citrusy calamansi, and have slightly caramelized edges. It comes with a side of rice that tastes great after soaking up the extra marinade.
This noodle dish is a combination of both egg and glass noodles, chicken, pork belly, Chinese sausage, and tossed with banana ketchup, oyster sauce, and soy sauce. Considering how much is going on here it’s surprisingly light, and a little bland. But the flavor that is there is great. Order this for the table to share.
The sisiq is delicious but inconsistent. It’s made with pork mask, duck liver, jalapeno, and a fried egg. Every time we’ve had it it’s been a little different. Sometimes the yolk is completely cooked. Sometimes the white is runny. Sometimes there are a lot of peppers, sometimes not. It’s a gamble, but if you like pork cheek and liver, it’s worth ordering.
Kinilaw is a nice, light ceviche, and the one at Cebu is very bright and flavorful. The tuna is dressed in a calamansi and coconut broth that complements it perfectly.
The lumpia (Filipino eggrolls) at Cebu are a crapshoot. We’ve had it cooked perfectly where it’s crispy and golden brown, and we’ve had it when it’s extremely greasy and burnt to hell. Order at your own risk.
The burger pops on and off the menu - occasionally it’s on the regular one, and occasionally it’s on the list of specials. The patty is glazed with adobo and comes with bacon, havarti, and sriracha garlic aioli. The most intriguing thing about it is that it comes on a housemade pandesal bun, but that can’t save the meat, which is really dry.
If you like pork belly, you’ll love this. The roasted belly is stuffed with onion, garlic, lemongrass, and anise, and the skin is very crispy. They make a limited amount and frequently run out.
Cebu’s desserts are great, and you shouldn’t leave without getting one. A standout is the halo-halo, which has enough stuff (shaved ice, evaporated milk, cherries, red bean paste, jelly, cornflakes, maybe Jimmy Hoffa, a housemade cookie) to keep you entertained for a long time.