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Smalls Smoke Shack Is Reinventing Itself as a Filipino-Style “Rice-and-Three”

Joaquin Soler quietly closed his Irving Park spot over the holidays to prep for the changeover.

Rice and three plate (counterclockwise from top: pinkabet, pork shoulder humba, and smoked brisket) at Smalls   Photo courtesy Smalls

Smalls Smoke Shack, the small smoke shack in Irving Park (4009 N. Albany Ave.), quietly closed about two weeks ago, but not for good.

Owner Joaquin Soler aims to reopen in two weeks with a new but still compact menu that showcases the food of his native Philippines while incorporating the smoked meats he’s known for. He’s toying with a name change, too: Though he hasn’t settled on it yet, one of his contenders is Turo Turo at Smalls.

Turo turo means “point point” in Tagalog, a reference to a common type of Filipino restaurant where customers choose, cafeteria-style, from a steam-table selection. At 480 square feet, Smalls is too small to convert to an actual turo-turo, but the food will be in that spirit. Instead of a meat-and-three format, think “rice-and-three,” says Soler.

Those three daily offerings, one of them vegetable-focused, will rotate regularly. They’ll include pancit (noodles); smoked rib tips, adobo- and paksiw-style (cooked with vinegar); smoked brisket in a stew called caldereta, and pork shoulder humba, a sweet soy-braised favorite of his. “I’m not trying to do a twist on things. It’s like with Smalls. I make it like how I want to eat it,” Soler says.

Still, there will be twists—foie gras shavings whisked into the caldereta’s warm gravy, for instance. “Because that’s one of the things that makes caldereta caldereta, right? The liver,” he says.

Much of it will be cooked in advance but not “cooked to death,” as is the unfortunate reality at many traditional turo turos. “Filipino food is like Indian food. It’s better the longer it sits, quite frankly,” Soler says.

The few other menu items will likely be versions of the most popular Smalls dishes, including fried chicken and bibimbap—“what people will kill us for if we don’t have them,” he says.

The concept has “been in my system for a while,” says Soler, who’s made no secret of his love of Filipino flavors, working them into menu specials and catering events. “We definitely have some customers interested in [Filipino food]. I don’t know if it’s because Filipino food is like the hot new thing, or if it’s because they know my background, and they want to see other stuff from us,” he says.

Soler closed the shop during the holidays for some much-needed time off and to regroup after some of his cooks left. Closing down again to get fully staffed and trained for the new concept was a necessary move, he says. “With this space, it’s always been about managing everyone’s expectations,” he says. “People had this expectation [with Smalls] that it’s gonna be quick, but it’s not necessarily quick. With the turo turo concept, yeah, it’s quick, but we’re also not gonna have the huge quantities of food that people are going to expect.

When Smalls reopens, it will serve lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday.

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