Filipino Brunch in Circle Pines

Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table
Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table

Editor’s note: This brunch has been discontinued.

Many Midwesterners know about spaghetti suppers or church basement dinners — gatherings at long cafeteria tables beneath fluorescent lights. Often they are fundraisers or happen after services. The meal isn’t always great, but it has something. Like familiarity, or more likely the comfort of 20 or 50 other people sharing something they need, the echo of many hands and favorite family recipes.

In a lot of ways, the Filipino (or Pinoy) brunch in Circle Pines couldn’t get more Midwestern. Every Sunday from 10 to 4, Mena-li Canlas (above) lays a spread in the Pines Market convenience store and marks up a whiteboard with the day’s menu in joyful colors. A plate of rice and two entrees is $6.25; rice and three entrees is $7.50. It’s a good idea to check Facebook for the menu or call ahead.

“This is not restaurant food,” explained Canlas with a warm smile. She runs a word-of-mouth-based catering company called Tita Li’s Kitchen. “This is lola food,” she says. “’Lola’ means grandma.”

Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table
Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table

Canlas gave us a loving tour of her table: sweet and oily chorizo-like sausages, adobo dark-meat chicken that was tender and moist, crispy fried chunks of melty pork called lechon, and Filipino fried rice, which is essentially garlic-scented white rice. Canlas’s brunch was humble and heavy and nothing like we’ve ever seen. I kept imagining the buffets of rust-colored sloppy joes and sweet cookie salad I grew up finding at family reunions. How strange and wonderful to stumble upon someone else’s version of home-cooked weekend food.

Our plates were a fascinating mosaic of Asian, Spanish, and Latin American flavors. The lengua (Spanish for “tongue”) with mushrooms could easily pass for a tepid cream of mushroom-based pot pie without the crust. And Pancit Palabok is a medley of noodles, chopped bacon and shrimp, green onions, and hard-boiled eggs. It was porky, tangy, squishy, and totally confusing. But so is cookie salad.

Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table
Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table

Dessert gets its very own table at Canlas’s brunch. Pairs of empanadas sit close to piles of yellow button cakes made from rice flour, and a large purple and white jellyroll called Ube Roll. We dug into a slice of Leche Flan Cake ($3.50), which the woman at the table described as “egg on top, cake on bottom.” The fluffy chiffon cake is soaked in a golden, liquidy caramel that starts off almost boozy and ends up mellow and full of vanilla. On top, something like strained custard is buttery and marvelous.

When pressed by a friend, Canlas sheepishly admitted she’d been featured in a book published in 2012 called Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875, by Phyllis Louise Harris. And thank goodness, because Filipino food is hard to find in the Twin Cities. What we do have is this friendly, sparse spot in Circle Pines for a glimpse into what it’s like to have a family meal in a Filipino kitchen.

Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table
Crystal Liepa / Heavy Table

Filipino Brunch by Tita Li’s Kitchen
Filipino comfort food in Circle Pines
2 S Pine Dr (Pines Market / Clark Station)
Circle Pines, MN 55014
CHEF: Mena-li Canlas
HOURS: Sun 10am-4pm
BAR: None
ENTREE RANGE: A la carte, combos $6.25-7.50