A taste of home: Nanay's Kitchen brings Filipino flavors to Rice Lake Road
The road to Island Lake is paved with Filipino food.
Gnesen Convenience Store on Rice Lake Road is now home to Nanay's Kitchen, a takeout eatery featuring the flavors of the Southeast Asian island nation.
"It's just a taste of home you don't have to go to the Philippines to get," said owner Beth Canete, whose family runs the long-standing convenience store.
The rural Northland outpost may seem an unlikely place to pick up a plate of adobo and a few lumpia, but for Canete it's just an extension of what she's made for her kids for years.
"Nanay means mom in the Philippines," she said.
With limited hours — Nanay's Kitchen is serving hot food Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. — it's more of a pop-up than a full-time restaurant. Already, though, demand for Filipino food is growing fast in a meat-and-potatoes corner of the country.
"I think people are more adventurous and are more interested in ethnic foods now," Canete said.
'I have the guts'
In a typical scene at the convenience store earlier this month, little Geraldine was riding her scooter around the aisles, Canete's husband and son were playing the ukelele and singing Beatles songs behind the counter; customers were greeted by name as they walked in; cars whizzed past and the tall grass blew across the forested fields that surround this stretch of highway.
In other words, pure Americana.
Canete came to the U.S. 26 years ago and has owned or part-owned several iterations of the store at 6049 Rice Lake Road. While she has long sold specialty foods — rice noodles, sauces and varieties of coconut — for the Filipino community, her cooking wasn't really put on display until a fundraiser following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
Starting with her egg rolls — lumpia — she added a dish here and there and began catering events, parties and weddings soon after. Then, with the help of a group of University of Minnesota Duluth marketing students, she found there might be enough of a local appetite for pork caldereta to sustain a business.
"In the entire United States, Filipino food is not really fully marketed," Canete said.
"Here in the Northland, I don't know; I have the guts," she added with a laugh. "It's a challenge, though. There are a lot of questions: Is it spicy? Is it Chinese food?"
While there are obvious Southeast Asian influences — rice, coconut and soy sauce are heavily featured — the influence of Spain's centuries of colonization in the Philippines comes through in the different types of dishes and approaches.
The dishes Nanay's Kitchen offers all contain recognizable ingredients with rich flavors and subtle spices. The desserts, like leche flan and cassava cake, likewise have a depth of flavor not so easily found in Northeastern Minnesota.
"All of these foods we have typically all the time," Canete said. "The Philippines do a lot of feasts."
The takeout business could be a boon for the Gnesen Convenience Store, which like other area stores now has to compete with Kwik Trip. A planned liquor store addition should help, too. Though hot food is available only twice a week, some of Canete's creations are available in the freezers — just one more thing to help set the family store apart.
"We're going to survive, despite the big corporate muscle coming to town," Canete said.