With scene-stealing roles in NBC’s sitcom Superstore and box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, Nico Santos has been very busy lately. But when he’s not on set, the Filipino-born actor/comedian might be found eating nigiri at one of LA’s hottest sushi bars, sipping Nebbiolo at a Melrose Avenue cafe, or hitting up the Cheesecake Factory for its low-key awesome happy hour. Santos has an apparent love of good food and drink in all its many forms — including the craft service delicacies that appear on the set of Superstore. For all these reasons, the actor is a perfect candidate for The Famous Original Eater Questionnaire.
During the rare moment of downtime last fall, the Santos hopped on the phone with Eater to talk about his favorite restaurants, the dishes that bring back memories of his childhood, and the dumpling techniques he learned on the set of Crazy Rich Asians.
Welcome to The Famous Original Eater Questionnaire. What’s the last thing that you ate?
Nico Santos: The last thing that I ate was leftovers from Petty Cash. It’s this taqueria on Beverly, and I had a couple of leftover quesadillas. Delicious.
What’s the last thing you drank?
I don’t drink often, but the last thing I drank alcohol-wise was a lovely Nebbiolo. I went to Spartina on Melrose the other day. It was great.
When and where was the last time you had a hot dog?
The last time I had a hot dog was actually a couple of weeks ago. My boyfriend and I went out to Precinct, which is this awesome gay bar downtown, and at 1:30 a.m. we had one of those LA street dogs — a bacon-wrapped hot dog — and it was amazing. It’s just what you want at 1:30 a.m.
What do you want to eat right this second?
Right now I’m craving sushi. I want sushi from Sushi by H. I’ve kind of been obsessed with that place lately. It’s one of the very few sushi places where the chef is a woman. They do this amazing pepper-tuna nigiri, and this red snapper nigiri with sea salt, lemon, and shiso. It’s really good.
What is your on-set dining regimen? Do you have any rules?
Usually we’re on set very early. I typically get there at 6 a.m., and I get an iced coffee or an iced Americano. My breakfast order is usually an egg white scramble with veggies and turkey bacon, with avocado and salsa. And here’s the thing about being on set: We eat all the time, so three hours after breakfast is served, there’s a “snack” that’s put out, and I say that with quotes, because it’s not really a snack — it’s a meal. Like, yesterday, our snack was dim sum, and it was amazing. They just had a big plate of har gow, shumai, baked barbecue buns, fried rice, and some noodles. So it’ s not really a snack — it’s a full-on meal. And then a couple hours after that, we have our actual lunch.
We have really amazing catering on set, too. Sometimes they’ll have this amazing cedar-plank salmon that they make with this brown-sugar rub that’s like so good. Generally I try to be as healthy as possible, but it’s hard to be on set because anything and everything is available to you. I’m healthy half the time, and half the time I’m like, “Sure let me go back and see whatever snack they have laid out.”
That sounds hard to resist.
Yes, that’s why after the first season I gained like 20 pounds.
What’s one food item that you didn’t try until later in life?
Uni. I grew up in the Philippines and we had all this amazing fresh seafood, but uni was something that I was weirded out by. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was like, “Let me just go ahead and try this.” Now I can’t get enough of it — it’s so good. Not only in sushi, but you’ll see a lot of Italian places do pasta with uni butter, and I can just eat that on anything.
How often do you cook?
I don’t cook as often as I would like. My boyfriend is a way better cook than I am. But I usually make the same five things. I like making adobo, because it’s easy and it keeps in the fridge for a while. Or I’ll make pasta with bolognese — something I can make a big batch of and can keep eating for the rest of the week. I also don’t know how to cook for one, so I always end up like, “I guess I’m feeding the entire neighborhood.”
What is your universal dinner party soundtrack?
I think Beyoncé, just in general, makes everybody happy.
What’s your favorite chain restaurant?
I do love me some Cheesecake Factory. Especially their happy hour, because they have $5 appetizers, and they are not appetizer portions, they are Cheesecake Factory portions.
I didn’t know Cheesecake Factory had a happy hour.
They do! And you don’t need reservations, you just march your ass to the bar from 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday for happy hour. You get your cheesecake, your macaroni and cheese, your fried stuff — it’s a pretty good deal.
If you could bring any now-closed restaurant back to life what would it be?
In the Philippines, I remember there was… do you know bibingka? It’s this Filipino rice cake that’s cooked with coals on top. There was a bibingka stand near my mom’s business when I was growing up in the Philippines that I don’t believe exists anymore. But I remember as a kid pretty much going there every other day and eating that till I was sick because I loved bibingka so much.
You’re in the famous Crazy Rich Asians dumpling scene. How do you rate your dumpling-folding skills?
I think now I’m an expert, but I had never folded dumplings before I filmed that scene. And you know, it was the only shoot we did all day because it had a lot of moving parts to it. At the beginning of the scene, they had someone teaching us how to fold dumplings, and mine just looked like a science experiment had gone wrong. But by the end of the day, I was folding these dumplings with ease. I was like, “I’m going to open up a restaurant now.” So I would now say I’m pretty good. But it definitely took me all day to learn the skills.
What’s your “Proust’s madeleine”?
Every time I eat ube ice cream, it takes me back to the Philippines. Anything ube-flavored, actually, is my favorite. I love the flavor so much, and it just reminds me of being a kid.
What’s a food secret that you wish more people knew about?
The whole “MSG is bad for you” thing is a big myth, and people should get over it. MSG is good. It makes everything taste good, and people should be putting it on everything.
New episodes of Superstore air on Thursday nights at 8/7c on NBC. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.