Jeff Almendras is trying to build a legacy using breakfast sandwiches. The founder of Filipinx comfort food pop-up Johnny Boy, Almendras dreams of one day growing his business into a collection of neighborhood hangouts with over a dozen locations. He aims to braid his cultural heritage as a first-generation Filipino immigrant, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his love of casual food together to create a unique Filipinx breakfast sandwich chain.
For now, his weekend pop-ups regularly sell out of chicken adobo sandwiched between pancakes and banana ketchup-smothered longganisa with fried egg on a brioche bun. He hands over his sandwiches with a grin, cheerily answering questions from curious customers about what to order — or what Filipinx food is anyway.
Growing up in Everett and Chelsea, Almendras spent time eating traditional Filipinx dishes at family parties with his mother’s 10 siblings, who all live within a five-mile radius of each other. Her oldest brother, Jaime Jose, worked to bring the entire family to America after immigrating as an officer in the Navy at 18, keeping the family rooted in their heritage even as they settled across the world from their homeland. Family gatherings were a mix of traditions, where Almendras’s aunts would be rolling lumpia upstairs while their brothers were grilling in the driveway. It’s Filipinx breakfast, however, for which he always held a special attachment.
“My dad — he’s the ‘Johnny’ in Johnny Boy — would work the night shift,” says Almendras. “He’d come home starving and cook Filipino breakfast: garlic fried rice, sausage, eggs, tomato, onions, salsa verde. I thought I’d just combine both worlds, Filipino breakfast, which we’re known for, combined with something quick, breakfast sandwiches, especially in a city that’s busy, like Boston.”
Almendras has long enjoyed sharing Filipinx food with friends at social gatherings, but it wasn’t until he was separated from his family during 2020 that he crystalized his idea for a new Filipinx food option in the city. “While I was eating Filipino food, I couldn’t order it,” he realized. “There was no representation for Filipino food.”
Almendras leveraged his limited experience working at a country club in college to launch his new food business, relying on his passion for entrepreneurship and a background in social media marketing to get things off the ground while seeking mentorship from industry veterans, such as Lisa Farrell of the shared kitchen space Food Revolution, Josh Lewin and Katrina Jazayeri of Juliet, and Ellie Tiglao of Tanám.
Entrepreneurship and innovation are main ingredients in Filipinx food, which is often referred to as the original fusion cuisine. Cuisines and styles vary widely throughout the islands, incorporating tropical products with flavors and techniques from Spain, which occupied the country from the early 1500s until 1898; ingredients and flavors from neighboring China; and hints of American influence from occupation throughout the 20th century. “Every stage of the Philippines’s life cycle, there’s a different aspect of food,” says Almendras.
“When the Americans came over during [World War II], they introduced hamburgers,” he says. “Filipino people, we love trying new stuff, so we’re like, sure. Then, we elevated it. Okay, we like ketchup, but we don’t have tomatoes, so let’s make banana ketchup.” Banana ketchup is featured on the longganisa sandwich, a staple of Johnny Boy’s growing menu.
For Almendras, it’s about more than just serving good breakfast; it’s about sharing his family’s history and introducing new diners to Filipinx food, which is not readily available in the Boston area. Almendras’s initial intention was to offer something quick and cravable for Filipinos like himself, seeking a taste of food they may enjoy at home with family. At his weekend pop-ups, though, he’s been surprised to see much of his customer base are actually new diners curious to try Filipinx flavors.
“If you’re interested in Filipino food or you don’t know anything about it, come try a sandwich,” he says. Like his food, Almendras tries to make himself accessible to anyone interested in trying something new.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be exactly what you’d experience in the Philippines, but this is what the essential flavor profiles are,” says Almendras. “Whether it’s something garlicky like the longganisa, or the sourness and saltiness of the chicken adobo, those are Filipino flavors.”
In addition to an ongoing residency at Food Revolution in Stoneham on Fridays and Saturdays, Johnny Boy is popping up on Sundays this summer at Tanám, a restaurant at Bow Market in Somerville that serves what it calls “narrative cuisine” and includes Filipinx American food as part of its identity.
“We are very eager for Filipino food to show up here,” says Ellie Tiglao, chef of Tanám. “It is a terrible position to be the only people that people are looking to to provide a taste of a place. With people doing more and different things, then we don’t have to fill every person’s desires for this food. We can be more honest about where we’re at and what’s important to us as well.”
Tiglao and Almendras both stress the variety and nuance of Filipinx cuisine, challenging the perception of it as a singular experience. “What we do is an honest expression of my experience of this food, as a Filipinx American,” Tiglao explains.
“I’d been doing a pop-up for about five years that led to Tanám in which I encountered a couple of things. One was Filipinos who really insisted on their own ideas about what Filipino food was, and then there were people who really had no idea what it was who I just wanted to make sure understood the context of this food beyond just another cheap Southeast Asian offering,” she says.
Tiglao describes the food at Tanám very specifically, knowing it will be many diners’ first experience with this cuisine. “We present some of our favorite aspects of Filipinx flavors, but we just scratch the surface. We want to make sure that [diners] understand that the food is much more than just what we are presenting.”
Strong support from a fellow Filipinx food entrepreneur only serves to highlight the dearth of options for this richly nuanced cuisine in Greater Boston. “Tanám was the first kind of restaurant doing what it’s doing with the Filipinx-style kamayan,” Almendras says, referring to Tanám’s popular communal feasts. “[Tiglao] is the first one in Boston to have that for the public, and I saw that as her lane. That’s perfect. I feel like there’s another lane, the breakfast side, that only us Filipinos would know.”
For Almendras, the future is about education as much as expansion. “Filipino food, it’s up and coming; people are asking questions,” he says. “I just want to deliver it in a completely innovative and new way that everyone can try. That is the Johnny Boy direction.” Almendras’s catching smile and boundless enthusiasm for Filipinx breakfast are sure to forge a path forward. This summer, the early birds of Somerville get to reap the benefits.
Johnny Boy pops up at Food Revolution (3 Marble Street, Stoneham) on Fridays and Saturdays for walk-ins, pickup, and delivery and at Tanám (1 Bow Market Way, Suite 17, Somerville) on Sundays for walk-ins and pickup. Watch Instagram for updates and online ordering links.