In 2017, Reina Montenegro saved her restaurant, Nick’s Kitchen, from the brink of closure with a drastic move: She stripped the place of its original equipment, stocked the kitchen with soy protein, and converted the Bay Area Filipino restaurant into an entirely vegan menu.
She wasn’t sure if it was going to be a complete failure or not. But the move would prove to be life-changing. Montenegro raised their daily revenue from $50 to $2,000 per day, opened a second “upscale” Nick’s in South San Francisco in 2018, and then a third — just recently — on World Vegan Day in San Francisco’s SoMa district.
Nick’s on Mission is the first vegan Filipino restaurant in the city. It serves bright purple ube pancakes, a thai “beef” basil made up of plant protein, and grilled mushrooms and tofu sisig. Montenegro cooks the tofu three times to get the texture just right. It also has a special place in Montenegro’s heart: San Francisco was the first place she landed when she first arrived from the Philippines.
Nick’s on Mission is a long way from where Montenegro first started with the restaurant. Montenegro had bought the Daly City “hole-in-the-wall” kitchen from Nick himself following his retirement, at his request, in 2015. At first, fearing backlash, Montenegro kept everything exactly as it was.
“Filipino food is all about meat,” she says, which posed a problem. Montenegro had converted to veganism for her health. “So I said, ‘I’m not going to be able to eat at my own restaurant, I guess.’”
But soon, Montenegro realized that her heart just wasn’t in it. And that was affecting business.
“I just remember not being there very much, and the business wasn’t doing very well,” Montenegro says. “And my partner at the time said, ‘Hey, this thing is hurting you. Either you change it, or you let it go.’”
So Montenegro decided to change it. She swapped out all the equipment to avoid cross-contamination, burned sage (“I was doing a cleanse because there was a lot of death in that place”), and rebranded Nick’s Kitchen as a vegan restaurant. She sent out a press release that she called “so lame” and hoped for the best. And that’s exactly what happened.
“It was like wildfire. Everyone was sharing, sharing, sharing,” Montenegro says. The vegan community had caught wind of Nick’s new menu. “We had lines out the doors. We ran out of food every night. I was working 18 hours every night.”
The initial success was outstanding. “I was crying. I couldn’t believe the amount of support I was getting,” Montenegro says. It saved Nick’s, encouraged Montenegro to open up two more locations, and kept her work in line with her values of environmentalism and healthy eating — two things she believes are intrinsically tied to veganism. But it wasn’t without backlash.
“I’ve been called so many names,” Montenegro says. “I’m an ‘abomination of tradition.’ What I’m doing is an ‘oxymoron,’ ‘a disgrace.’”
A lot of her biggest critics come from those with an “older, traditional mindset” from her Filipino community.
“I’m trying to spread my culinary activism with my people,” Montenegro says. “Because they’re the hardest to convert, to be honest.”
But Montenegro tries not to let that bother her.
“I’m not fazed by that. I’m here to save lives. Saving the environment and your health and the animals is huge,” Montenegro says. “It doesn’t matter what people say. It doesn’t matter if I don’t make any money. I believe in what I’m doing.”
Nick’s on Mission,
996 Mission St.