Born and raised in the Philippines, Nikko Cagalanan grew up eating classic dishes like sisig and pork adobo made with love by his grandmother.
“I watched her cook everything — breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And the funny thing is that in the Philippines, all of those meals involve rice. She would go to the market first thing in the morning and I would tag along sometimes.”
Being in this environment from a young age gave Cagalanan an understanding of Filipino flavor components, but the chef behind Mansueta’s pop-up wouldn’t actually start cooking full-time until 2014.
Cagalanan studied to be a nurse while in the Philippines, and he began working in a Massachusetts nursing home when his wife’s job brought them to the United States in 2011. When they decided to move to Miami, Cagalanan’s credits didn’t transfer, so he was left with more free time to watch chefs like Gordon Ramsay on television, slowly tapping into a passion for food that had in fact been there all along.
In 2014, Cagalanan and his wife ventured back to Boston, and he secured his first kitchen job working for Drew Grosse, now the chef de cuisine at Cambridge’s Little Donkey. After a few years learning the restaurant ropes, the couple moved back down South in early 2018 when his wife started teaching at Coastal Carolina University. Quickly realizing that Charleston was the place to be for rising chefs, Cagalanan hit the ground running, looking for any work he could find.
Staging for Sean Brock during the 2018 Wine + Food Festival provided an introduction to a tasting menu kitchen while also paving the way for his current role under chef Vinson Petrillo at Zero Restaurant + Bar, where he works four days a week. Yes, that’s right, Cagalanan has a full-time job in addition to his pop-up. Former Chopped and Top Chef Masters contestant Petrillo has sampled some of Cagalanan’s work during their staff meals, even rating the sisig he brought in recently as the “best meal” he’d had over the last year.
So what inspired Cagalanan to add his own pop-up to an already hectic schedule? He says he missed the Filipino food he grew up on and couldn’t find a place in Charleston focusing on an authentic approach to this cuisine.
With that in mind, Cagalanan gave up his second job at The Daily last month and started Mansueta’s, which he named after his beloved grandmother. So far, it has been a hit. “I’m getting a lot of positive feedback, and I even have a few regulars now who I see every week,” says Cagalanan.
Cagalanan sets up Mansueta’s at Palmetto Brewing every Sunday and heads over the Ashley River Bridge to Charles Towne Fermentory on Tuesdays. For starters, Cagalanan offers crispy lumpia, which come with a sweet banana ketchup dipping sauce. From there, guests can try a main dish like grilled chicken, which is marinated in a classic Filipino citrus known as Kalamansi, or his vinegar-soy infused pork adobo that has just enough kick from thinly sliced Serrano chilis. Cagalanan explains that he begins many of these main dishes with onion, garlic, and ginger, known as the “Filipino trinity.”
Diners looking for less meat can check out the vegetarian menu that includes items like mushroom sisig, a dish traditionally made with braised pig’s head. The diced button mushrooms melt in your mouth thanks to the addition of egg yolk, and the vegetarian fun doesn’t stop there, as the elegant leche flan will have you quickly forgetting you are sitting in a brewery eating a $5 dessert.
But what really sets this pop-up apart? Cagalanan’s commitment to his food’s visual aesthetic is on full display, demonstrated in his crispy pork belly dish by topping the meat with carefully sliced carrots. In addition, his eye-popping ube, or purple yam, ice cream sandwich that arrives on a koji butter-brushed brioche bun displays a modern use for this frequently used Filipino ingredient. This aspect of his cooking is something Cagalanan says he “can’t help but to take with him after leaving work at Zero George.”
Cagalanan has sought guidance and inspiration from other successful pop-ups around Charleston like Sap-Lai and Matzo Y Masa, and Jeffery Stoneberger from 2Nixons has proved to be an invaluable resource.
“He’s been advising me on the business side of operating a pop-up. When I first moved to Charleston, he was the person who guided me towards where to eat and who to talk to.” Oh, and did we mention that Cagalanan also works in the kitchen of hit pop-up Pink Bellies on Tuesdays at Edmund’s Oast Brewing Company? Owner Thai Phi appreciates the chef’s cuisine so much that one or two of his dishes often appear on the menu.
Adding a touch of fine dining flair to the Filipino dishes he grew up with and forging his own path through hard work and determination, Cagalanan is turning Mansueta’s into a Charleston pop-up that many already frequent.