By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
Prince Torre, 35, did not always want to become a cook. He came to the United States in 2004 when he was only 16 years old from Aklan, Philippines, with his father after he got a job in New York City. After school, Torre would try to help out with dinner since his father worked all day. Unfortunately, Torre was not a natural in the kitchen. He didn’t even know how to make rice, and his Chicken Adobo, a traditional Filipino dish, would come out soupy and soggy. He aspired to be a nurse after graduating from high school, but when that didn’t work out he decided to give cooking another shot. He enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education and hasn’t looked back.
Torre worked in different restaurants throughout the city including those that specialized in American and Mexican cuisines. One of the places where he worked was known for its rotisserie chicken, which reminded him of the Filipino spit-roasted rotisserie chicken, lechon manok, which he enjoyed eating back home. He was inspired to open his own restaurant where he could sell lechon manok.
In December 2019, he opened his first restaurant called Filipino BBQ which, as the name indicated, served Filipino barbecue, in Elmhurst, Queens, with partners Pio Jones and Nes. However, that restaurant was short-lived.
“We got hit by a pandemic. So that place closed down for a few — maybe three months, and then we tried to come back little by little. It’s very tough and people didn’t want to order anything,” Torre says. “We had to go out there for people to notice us.”
The impact of the pandemic combined with conflict between restaurant employees and managers caused Torre to want to shut the restaurant for good. Then in February 2021, while on a walk with his wife, he saw a storefront for sale in Middle Village, Queens. He decided to take a risk to buy it and open up a new restaurant: Chick’n Rotonda.
Chick’n Rotonda sells traditional Filipino dishes and desserts such as lechon manok, kale la-ing (coconut creamed kale garnished with shrimp bits and chili) and an ube coconut bar (fudgy purple yam bar with toasted coconut on top). While most of the food is prepared as it is ordered, Torre hopes Chick’n Rotonda becomes a fast-food-type restaurant for Filipino dishes.
“To put things in a simpler way [Chick’n Rotonda is] like Boston Market. You have a rotisserie chicken and then you’ve got your sides. But ours are Filipino sides and Filipino marinades with Filipino-style chicken and pork belly,” Torre says. “We add on the Filipino sides like kale la-ing, We don’t use kale, back home, we use taro leaves. But I said, why not try kale? [We also added] lumpia (Filipino spring roll) we put it as a side dish now — the pork or vegetable lumpia, we also have kanin, adobo-fried rice and chopsuey (stir-fried cauliflower, with broccoli, young corn and mushroom.)”
Torre hopes that every item on the menu can make patrons feel like they are eating an authentic dish from the Philippines. Even the desserts, such as the Calamansi lime cupcakes his wife makes, are inspired by the island of Boracay, a beachy tourist destination in Torre’s hometown.
The success of Chick’n Rotonda has given Torre new hope for success in the restaurant business. He bought some space next to Chick’n Rotunda’s current storefront with the goal of adding Filipino barbecue to the menu with traditional skewers of chicken and pork.
On a recent April evening at the Queens Night Market, Torre’s stand had hundreds of people lined up to try these skewers. Gia Diujongco, 26, discovered Chick’n Rotonda via Tik Tok and says she had to give it a try.
“[My favorite thing here] is the Lechon manok, that one is a good one. It tastes like home,” she says. “Lechon manok is chicken, marinated with soy sauce, vinegar, onion, black pepper, salt and then garlic. I think [Chick’n Rotonda] puts a lot of lemongrass. It makes it taste authentic because there’s a lot of lemongrass in the Philippines. The most common foods are made with lemongrass.”
Being from the Philippines herself, the food at Chick’n Rotonda reminds Diujongco of her beloved country. While Filipinos love Chick’n Rotonda, Torre wants the restaurant to take Filipino food mainstream.
“Our mission is that we want to normalize Filipino cuisine. We want to push Filipino cuisine forward,” he says. “Even if we start with comfort food, we want other people to taste what we feel at home.”
To try the food at Chick’n Rotonda, visit its location at 64-58 Dry Harbor Rd. in Middle Village, New York. You can also stop by Torre’s booth at the Queens Night Market. Stay up-to-date on specials by following the restaurant on Instagram.
Visit Chick’n Rotonda and use the code EPICENTER10 to get 10% off your order, valid online and in-store.