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Like many of us, chef Blaine Baggao—the owner of Adobo food truck—has spent the last year of his life focusing on his purpose and what really matters to him. “My grandmother and my mother are my foundation. My daughter is my fuel. It’s the women in my life who make everything possible and motivate me to just keep going, no matter what,” Baggao says. “All of this is because of them.”
Baggao’s highest aspirations are to honor his grandmother, whose recipes and flavor profiles have set the foundation for Adobo, and do right by his daughter, who motivates him to achieve and leave a legacy. As a result, the menu at Adobo—which currently occupies the kitchen at First Draft Taproom & Kitchen in RiNo and parks at events across the Front Range—respects his past and his future by reflecting the flavors and cultures of the American West. The food embodies the hybridity that so many in the region experience: chicken adobo tacos, kimchi burgers, green chile cheese fries, carnitas devil eggs, red chile cherry-smoked chicken wings. Raised on his grandmother’s Filipino cooking and his mother’s American food in Roswell, New Mexico, each bite of food feels like the synthesis of multiple cultures. Baggao, who grew up feeling like “the only Filipino kid in town,” aspires to serve food that allows people to taste what can happen when people cherish and explore their cultural complexities.
“You can’t take a bite of a chicken adobo taco and say ‘Ah, yes. That New Mexican bite was good. This Filipino bite was good,’ Baggao says, laughing. “When you’re eating the food, you’re taking in both cultures at the same time, and they taste connected because they already are.” Combining all parts of himself and his heritage into his food has allowed Baggao to heal the externally-imposed fissures within himself, and connect with others. Multiracial people specifically, he says, have seemed to find a home in the food at Adobo, and often relate their appreciation directly to Baggao.
Creating social change through food has always been one of Baggao’s goals, sparked by a childhood that often felt achingly singular. By embracing his own journey—and the region he has always called home—Baggao has found a devoted audience, but his success didn’t come without challenges.
In 2012, Baggao suffered a traumatic brain injury after a major motorcycle accident that would change his life completely. The accident transformed him from a financial investor who had cooked recreationally into an aspiring professional chef. The years of physical and emotional healing that were required to recover from his brain injury ultimately resulted in the confidence and desire to buy a food truck. In 2017, just five years after the accident, Adobo was born—and by 2019, it was declared Denver’s Best Food Truck by Westword.
And then, COVID-19 spared no one, and Baggao had to pivot his business in early 2020. For months, Baggao provided meals for healthcare workers and delivered smoked carnitas door-to-door (even when supply chains were strained and only certain ingredients were available). It was a challenge, but after making it through what he describes as a “really tough and really terrifying” time, Baggao has much to celebrate. The food truck found a home at First Draft last October, and his food was featured on the Netflix’s show Fresh, Fried And Crispy as a representative of Denver’s dynamic food scene this summer.
Since the episode aired in June, the combination of eased pandemic restrictions and the power of Netflix have been good for business. Today, the restaurant is selling 10 times as much lumpia as it did previously and four times the amount of smoked carnitas—forcing Baggao and his team to adjust menu items to accommodate the 350 percent increase in sales. Next up for the chef? Expanding the menu to incorporate more affordable options and a higher concentration of vegetables. “I believe a healthy diet is one of the most important things someone can learn to provide for themselves and others,” he says. “I want Adobo to be able to provide folks with that on a more consistent basis.”
In late August, the highly anticipated Meow Wolf exhibit announced that Adobo would be one of the 13 food vendors at its cafe (opening September 17), and Baggao also plans to open a third location later this year.
When we spoke earlier this summer, Baggao was preparing to embark on a 640-mile motorcycle trip to El Paso—a pilgrimage back to where it all began: his grandmother’s family home. Refusing to watch the episode of Fresh, Fried And Crispy without his grandmother, the plan was to reunite, watch the episode, and witness together how far their shared love of making food and building community had gotten them.
“Cooking for me is a constant evolution from where I was to where I want to go,” he says. “That is part of what brings me so much satisfaction.”
Adobo at First Draft, 1309 26th St.