Po: Bringing Heartfelt Asian Flavors to Popups

The secret sauce that makes Po unique can't exactly be tied down to just one thing, it's rooted in a multitude of distinctly Asian flavors and experiences that Po founders Bong Sta. Maria and Jake Caruncho encountered during their travels. By Nikki Cagurangan

Like a lot of DIY food startups, Po started with a few key ingredients: the passion for cooking, eating and sharing that whole experience with family and friends. The secret sauce that makes Po unique can’t exactly be tied down to just one thing; rather, it’s rooted in a multitude of distinctly Asian flavors and experiences that Po founders Bong Sta. Maria and Jake Caruncho encountered during their travels.

Luckily for us, the low-key couple now shares their food with more than just family and friends. After having spent three years of immersing themselves in the local pop-up scene, their initial menu of Taiwanese Pork Buns and Ginger Scallion Noodles has expanded to a permutation of familiar yet excitingly curious menu items. It also birthed a meticulously refurbished food truck, which recently turned a year old.

Yes, Po

The story behind how Po was conceived is a quiet, rather random, but firmly resolute one.

“We’d been together for about two years and cooking a lot. I texted Jake something like ‘Let’s sell food,’ and he was like, ‘Yes’,” Bong shared. Hence, the birth of their food project baby, which they named Po to capture the ambiguously Fil-Asian cuisine they set out to share.

Which particular Asian-inspired restaurants and dishes do they pay homage to?

“Restoran Kin Kin in Kuala Lumpur (chili pan mee, which we eventually included on our menu), Xian Famous Foods in New York (cumin lamb noodles, which inspired our cumin beef noodles), stalls/restaurants in Chiang Mai that served Khao Soi and Sai Ua (which we served once in one of our pop-ups), Momofuku pork buns and Baohaus in New York (which inspired our buns), and Bun cha in Hanoi (which is not on our menu, but is a staple in our home kitchen),” Bong shares, but leaves the list open-ended. “We usually find the best meals in the most random places (most of which we can’t read or pronounce), so we can’t name them all.”

Honed through home-cooking

The duo now has a growing list of delivery regulars, caterings, collaborations and pop-ups where they have been known to soothe bad cases of culinary wanderlust with mouthwatering renditions of dishes like fried chicken buns, a curated selection of pork buns, rice bowls, noodles (Scallion, Dan-Dan, Chili Pan Mee), and seasonal creations like Mapo Tofu-topped fries, and rice and noodle burgers infused with delectable Asian ingredients like northern Thai sausage. They have also started offering rice bowls and vegan options for the noodles, in response to the feedback that they get from customers over time.

While both Bong and Jake have some formal culinary background (Bong studying pastry arts and Jake having previous culinary training and restaurant experience), all their dishes and their general business model are developed in their own kitchens — in true cottage-industry, punk-rock fashion.

We asked them what they think are the main elements that make home-cooked, DIY cooking different from big business startups, to which they said both can yield excellent results flavor and quality-wise, but admitted that DIY/home-cooked food definitely involves more blood, sweat, and tears.

“They’re 100% run by the owners. There are too many challenges — we don’t pay daily rent, but we need to bring/set up our kitchen every time we’d do a pop-up. Most of the time, it’s just us in the kitchen cooking the food, carrying and cleaning the equipment, etc.”

Having stated some of the challenges commonly faced by small business owners in the Philippines, we asked them what their main sources of motivation are that keeping them going, despite it all.

“(Feeding) people who appreciate food as much as we do, our friends and families, cookbooks by chefs, cooks we love, each other, and the haters,” they muse, and share the most crucial things they’ve learned in the kitchen that they can apply elsewhere in life:

“As much as possible, don’t do shortcuts… Always keep your calm (honestly easier said than done when you’re in a hot, constrained kitchen environments, but we try).”

What else could they be cooking up in the Po kitchen? “Maybe a pastry line, and a grocery/frozen foods concept,” they tease.

Having heard all that, the future of Po looks delicious. We can’t wait to take a bite.

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