Kuya’s Islander Cuisine blends traditional Filipino, Hawaiian dishes at new location on Powell Blvd.
While growing up in the Philippines, Fred Asa learned to cook by helping in his mother’s kitchen.
Asa was part of a big family — six brothers and five sisters — and when he turned 11 he started making dishes with his mother that she would then sell as lunches to nearby office staffs.
“All of the siblings learned to cook,” Asa said.
Those early days, cooking with family planted the spark in Asa that would eventually lead him to open his own restaurant in Gresham — Kuya’s Islander Cuisine.
“I’m very excited about this opportunity,” he said.
Asa moved to Portland in 1969 with his wife Elizabeth. He pursued many business ventures — accountant, real estate agent, operating adult care homes and residential care facilities and insurance sales — but his heart kept pulling him back to the kitchen.
He opened more than a dozen food carts across Portland, staffed by his family members who were immigrating to the United States and looking for work. Some offered hot dogs, fresh-squeezed orange juice, Mexican food, but for Asa the best was being able to share the food he grew up making.
“I wanted to have places for my family to be able to work and thrive,” Asa said.
In 2015 Asa, along with friends in the Filipino community, opened a restaurant called “Kuya’s Cuisine,” inside a community center. Asa operated that joint until 2017, when he semi-retired.
Not content with so much free time on his hands, Asa opened a food cart in Gresham called Kuya Fred’s Cuisine, which served Filipino food. He followed that up with two more food carts — one at Happy Valley Station and another in East Portland. But balancing those three locations was starting to drain on Asa, and he wanted to better connect with his customers.
So two weeks ago, Asa officially opened his latest restaurant — Kuya’s Islander Cuisine. The brick-and-mortar location, at 1446 E. Powell Blvd. in Gresham, offers both traditional Filipino and Hawaiian dishes.
“Many people who visit haven’t heard about the food — my main motivation is to give people a taste of Filipino cooking,” Asa said.
The three most popular dishes at the restaurant are adobo, pancit noodles and lumpia rolls.
Adobo is unofficially considered the national Filipino dish, and is pork or chicken stewed in vinegar, garlic and soy sauce. The lumpia are a great appetizer to share. They are spring rolls made with paper-thin, crepe-like pastry dough. For dessert there is the famous Halo-Halo, a photogenic layered dessert that includes sweetened beans, fruit, shaved ice with evaporated milk, ube ice cream and many other ingredients.
The restaurant also has daily specials — ask if you go — where Asa showcases other dishes. One of those is kare-kare, also called “peanut stew,” which features oxtail with cooked vegetables in a peanut sauce.
The Hawaiian side of the menu was inspired by his sister-in-law, who grew up in Hawaii. Like the Filipino dishes, Asa realized there wasn’t a lot of great Hawaiin restaurants in East Multnomah County. The dishes include lots of barbeque, huli-huli chicken and loco moco.
“Opening the restaurant makes me feel great because I can be present and talk with the customers,” Asa said.
As Kuya’s Islander Cuisine grows within Gresham’s food scene, Asa would love to start hosting education sessions to continue to cultivate an appreciation for Filipino food. One of his ideas is hosting a free cooking class for high schoolers where they can make the traditional dishes.
“I want to share my love of cooking,” Asa said.
Kuya’s Islander Cuisine
WHERE: 1446 E. Powell Blvd.
– 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday
– 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday