Chef Reina Montenegro is stepping out of the shadow of Nick's on Grand with a new venture that's all her own. (Albert La / Chef Reina)
Freedom. That’s what chef Reina Montenegro is getting after stepping away from her partnership with the popular vegan Filipino restaurant Nick’s on Grand.
After opening in South San Francisco in 2016, Nick’s expanded into Daly City and San Francisco’s Mission District; all three locations closed in October. But for Montenegro, this isn’t a tragic end. It’s a good thing. She has rebranded and is focusing on a delivery and takeout model under her own name: Chef Reina opened Oct. 20.
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“Nobody really knew who ‘Nick’ was,” says Montenegro. “I hid behind that brand for so long for so many reasons. This is basically me emerging and accepting that I am the one behind it. There are no boundaries. It’s like a breath of fresh air.”
She says this year gave her the opportunity to finally, fully own it. With the Nick’s Kitchen brand, her restaurant partners had decision-making power. “I couldn’t really make decisions on my own and I couldn’t really do what I wanted to do,” explains Montenegro. There came a point during the pandemic when she realized they wouldn’t be able to sustain the restaurants if they kept the model the same. Expenses compared to the ventures’ income just didn’t add up.
“If you don’t pivot with the times, you’re going to be left behind,” says Montenegro. “I decided to evolve.” And she decided to make those changes on her own, with an eye towards the trends emerging during the pandemic.
Understanding that people are looking for more delivery services and ways to cook at home, Chef Reina is an online storefront working out of a ghost kitchen. Delivery drivers around Daly City and the peninsula provide her customers with vegan Filipino takeout, delivery and care packages. In a couple of months, she plans to launch a delivery service for vegan “meats” nationwide.
It was important for Montenegro to keep her menu focused on vegan Filipino food. “I think it’s a bolder approach and more honest,” she says. “I’m excited to share more of me and my food without the question ‘Who is Nick?’”
Montenegro’s goal has always been to reach the Filipino community in the Bay Area, which she says is super heavy on meat-eating.
“There’s absolutely no dish out there that doesn’t have meat,” she says. “Filipinos have very high cholesterol. [My] people are dying of diseases, and I created all of these mock meat dishes to mimic these heavy meat dishes as we used to eat. I’m changing tradition here, and people used to get upset. I’m not afraid of that. I’m not trying to do anything but save your life; [I’m] not trying to do anything other than save the planet and animals.”
She also hopes to have her own commissary kitchen by the end of the year. “There’s freedom to do what I want finally, and not hesitate or worry about what a partner or partners will think,” says Montenegro.
One of her new dishes is vegan beef bulgogi. It’s one Montenegro says no one has made, and she thinks it will be one of her bestsellers. Using meat alternatives, she’s working on a “beef” torta and holiday dishes scheduled to launch this month. Also to come: a dessert menu with leche flan.
Montenegro sees these alternative dishes as gateways for people who want to transition to vegetarianism and veganism. Because of the pandemic, she’s had a lot of time to play with textures and tastes while d developing the dishes for Chef Reina. “It’s almost like I turned into this crazy mad scientist during Covid,” she says.
For Montenegro, the most “Reina” dish on the menu is the tocino, which is traditionally cured pork made from the belly of the pig. It was a dish she grew up eating, and it’s her absolute favorite. It’s also one that took a long time to perfect as a vegan version.
Montenegro wants Chef Reina to be the place where people think the vegan version tastes as good as or better than the original. “It’s my form of culinary activism, through my food,” she says. For her, this new iteration is welcome change—a new beginning on her own terms.