Talde's is among the most pan-Asian of the Asian Soul Food restaurants, but the chef also draws on food he sampled at friends' houses on the Southside of Chicago -- the black-eyed peas, collard greens barbecue and cornbread of the Southern diaspora -- and the "best tacos ever" that he found near Ashland Avenue and West Division Street.
He playfully references American street food in his juicy pretzel, pork, and chive dumplings with spicy mustard. He pays tribute both to his Filipino heritage and his childhood with his halo-halo dessert. The dish is typically made with shaved ice, condensed milk, and a mixture of fruits, legumes, and root vegetables cooked in syrup. Talde creates a cartoon-colored version of it with charred banana, pearl tapioca, and Cap'n Crunch.
Because he's of the opinion that "Mexican food here [in New York City] sucks," his brunch menu includes chilaquiles with barbecued tofu, a fried egg, and salsa verde, and a lemongrass chicken quesadilla. He freely admits he's taken a few cues from Kogi BBQ's Roy Choi, and says, "I admire him. I've never had his food, but you read his menus and it's like, delicious. I want to eat everything on it."
Growing up in Niles, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Talde was part of a sprawling extended family of close to 50 first cousins. "I knew we were Filipino, but I don't think I really understood what that meant, he says. "Back then, we didn't have Manny Pacquiao, we didn't have that dude from the Black Eyed Peas, we didn't have Lea Salonga. So I latched on to Michael Jordan and early '90s hip-hop, not knowing they would have a profound impact on the way I look at food, at culture in general."
For many Asian American Soul Food chefs, to aligning themselves with African American or Latino culture was easier than finding common ground with white culture. Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, who teaches Asian American studies at Stanford, recognizes this affinity as something he felt when he was younger. "It felt good when the black kids accepted me. It was the time of civil rights, and Black Power. For me it was a way of identifying with a bigger struggle, because there wasn't much I could identify with, being Asian American."
Murphy-Shigematsu says he often sees the same pattern in his Asian American college students: "They negate culture, say it's not something that's really relevant to them. They're often not aware that what they're admiring is mainstream values." At some point in what he calls the "identity process," they embrace their Asian American heritage. "They're searching for a kind of wholeness and balance, a blending that will connect all the different parts of themselves," he explains.
That's what Asian Soul Food chefs are doing, and in the process, they're claiming the right to create a more authentic form of fusion cuisine. Their food, Murphy-Shigematsu says, "is not authentically Asian, but it's authentically Asian American." As James Syhabout put it, "I'm comfortable now where before there was a big void. I think I neglected my heritage when I was younger because I thought I could be better than that, rather than just that." Food, he now believes, "is the best vessel to portray who I am."