Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Kainbigan serves up Filipino comfort food in Oakland


Kainbigan Restaurant owner and chef Charleen Caabay, second from left, serves up her Filipino comfort food to customers, from left, Aileen Calalo, Lindsey Adams, and Sophie Caabay.
(Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)
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Charleen Caabay has officially opened the doors to welcome friends new and old into her restaurant in East Oakland.

Kainbigan Restaurant had a soft launch in August, but now, following a recent grand opening, the restaurant is in full swing serving up homemade Filipino comfort food inspired by Caabay's mother and her late grandmother.

Kain'bigan, the restaurant's name, is the play on the Tagalog words kain and kaibigan, which translated means eat and friend, respectively. The two words put together loosely translated means, "come in to eat friend." Kain'bigan's slogan is: "let's eat, my friends."

"Where there's food, there's always good company and friends," said Caabay, a 34-year-old queer woman who is chef and owner of Kainbigan.

Lines have been out the door of the small eatery and take-out orders have been brisk since its grand opening September 14.

Caabay still can't believe that she has a place where her friends can come and enjoy her homemade dishes.

"Every day has been a tear-jerker," said Caabay. "I walk in the door first thing in the morning and I'm like, my jaw still drops, 'Oh, God. I can cook every day, all day for my friends and that's it. I made it. I finally made it."

She never dreamed that she could be a chef and own her own restaurant.


Grandma's kitchen

There was always a gathering around the kitchen and table growing up with her mother and grandmother in New Jersey.

"Our household was always full of people over, eating," said Caabay, who would sit in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother watching them chop, stir, and serve the hearty Filipino food. "When people came over it was always a feast."

She lost that when her parents moved Caabay and her sister to Vallejo when she was 13 years old. That same year, her beloved grandmother died.

"I was very, very close to her because she pretty much raised me when I was younger while my mom worked all day," said Caabay.

To make up for the loss of the family feasts, her parents made new friends and invited them over to dinner all of the time, said Caabay. She continued that tradition with her friends in high school, raiding pantries and cooking and grilling for everyone while the parents were at work.

Discovering her love of making dishes, the second-generation Filipina also missed her grandmother's cooking and started to become aware of the loss of cultural foods among American Filipinos, she said. She lost many of her grandmother's recipes, but she began creating her own and making healthier versions of the traditional Filipino dishes without losing the flavor.


Going for it

It's been a long journey to opening the restaurant. The former IT expert started serving up her food at local women's nightclubs several years ago. At the time it didn't even occur to her that she could make a living doing what she loves doing: cooking.

"I always cooked either as a hobby or just for parties," said Caabay. "It didn't trigger in my head that I can do this as a career."

As more people asked her if she catered, she started saying yes. It became a side gig for her until she was laid off from her IT job during the economic downturn. Suddenly, she found herself in a position deciding whether to focus on cooking or continuing the cycle of contract IT jobs that never resulted in a permanent position.

To test things out, Caabay tapped into local entrepreneur resources for low-income women learning how to run a business and opened a pop-up restaurant in Oakland for three months in 2012.

During that time she kept driving by a space in East Oakland that a friend pointed out to her with a "For Rent" sign on it. The space, located on a corner next to a barbershop at 14th Avenue and East 21st Street, has been various restaurants in the past.

It took about nine months to open the restaurant. She invested an undisclosed amount from investors and small business loans into the eatery, which is supported by about five part-time staff. Kainbigan is now growing and is currently hiring for several positions.

"Everyone that walks in ... they are super excited because now they have a place to get my food," said Caabay.


Kainbigan Restaurant, located at 2101 14th Avenue in Oakland, is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, visit

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