With deep roots in the island nation and infinite variations on local family tables and in chefs’ kitchens, Filipino cuisine has found its place in Coastal Virginia.
After a few years of being called, “The Next Great American Cuisine,” Filipino food is finally capturing the attention of foodies everywhere. If it’s any indication, #ube (the purple yam common in Filipino cooking) has surpassed 500K posts on Instagram, and Jollibee (a Filipino fast-food chain) announced plans to open hundreds of North American locations in the next five years. Here in Coastal Virginia, home to nearly 50,000 Filipino-Americans, Filipino cuisine has long been a part of our local food culture.
When I was five years old, my mom started working at Angie’s Bakery on Holland Road in Virginia Beach (back in 1988, when it was still the original Glory’s Bakery). It was one of only a handful of Filipino-owned establishments at that time, and one of the first Filipino bakeries in the area.
Many of my earliest food memories took place there. For merienda (afternoon snack), I often enjoyed freshly baked pandesal (Filipino dinner rolls), warm siopao (fluffy steamed buns with savory meat filling) or ensaymada (brioche pastries topped with butter, edam cheese and sugar), and shrimp chips or Nagaraya cracker nuts from the storefront.
We came to Hampton Roads because my dad, like many other local Filipinos of his generation, was recruited at U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay and stationed here. At the turn of the 20th century, when the United States seized control of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, the Navy began recruiting thousands of Pinoys (Filipinos) to serve as cooks and mess hall attendants. In 1973, higher-ranking roles were opened to them, and recruitment became much more selective at just a few hundred servicemen per year.
“The Navy changed our lives,” says Elmer Galang, a retired Navy Chief and co-owner of Susan’s Kitchenette with his wife, Fely. “It was a direct passport from the Philippines to become a citizen.” Armed with a degree in aeronautical engineering, he says, “The Navy pursued me. They said, ‘Why don’t you come over here? We’ve got good benefits, opportunities, you’ll see the world and we’ll pay you in dollars!’”
Galang later used his G.I. Bill benefits to take business courses and get a culinary degree to help support the restaurant his mother, Susan, opened in 2001.
Like most Filipino restaurants in the area, Susan’s Kitchenette is turo-turo style. Meaning “point-point,” turo-turo refers to a cafeteria-style service in which you pick a combo of entrees from an array of freshly prepared dishes warming on a steam table. This no-frills format is all about taste and value, making it a popular restaurant option in a country like the Philippines, where many people don’t have much of a dining-out budget.
The first dine-in Filipino restaurant in Coastal Virginia was the original Maymar on Indian River Road, which is now closed. “That one opened in 1990,” says Junior Marasigan, owner of Maymar Cuisine on Pleasant Valley Road in Virginia Beach. His sister and brother-in-law, Juliet and Lando Mayor, paved the way for local turo-turo restaurants. There are around a dozen in Coastal Virginia today. Four of them carry the Maymar brand and are owned and operated by members of the Marasigan and Mayor families (Maymar is a conjoining of the two family names).
“Back in the early ’90s, my uncle and aunt were competing with Chinese restaurants,” says Brian Mayor, who owns Maymar Filipino Restaurant in Chesapeake with his wife, Heather.
But unlike North American Chinese restaurants, which invented entrees like General Tso’s chicken to appeal to Western palates, turo-turo restaurants are known to offer authentic Pinoy cooking exactly as a lola (grandmother) would make it at home.
Mainstays include deeply Filipino dishes like pinakbet, a medley of vegetables like eggplant, okra and bitter melon sautéed in bagoong (fermented shrimp paste); kare-kare, oxtail and tripe stewed in a thick peanut sauce; and dinuguan, a rich, brown stew of pork offal simmered in pig’s blood, garlic, chilis and vinegar are always on the menu. Filipinos traditionally eat with their hands, and as such, chicken adobo is served bone-in, shrimp heads are left on, pompano and tilapia are prepared whole, bones and all.
“People sometimes come in here, and they have no idea about Filipino food,” says Heather Mayor. “They’re constantly learning. It’s cool to see people try it for the first time, and their eyes are like, ‘Wow, I’ve never tried anything like this!’”
Pioneering restaurants like Maymar and Mary’s on Lynnhaven (now FeLynn) were pillars of the Fil-Am community, catering—and often hosting—every important event in local Filipinos’ lives. From baptisms and housewarmings to debuts (Philippine cotillions) and funerals, a Pinoy gathering is not complete without a huge buffet of food.
Take for example the catered feast at my 13th birthday party: At the center, a whole lechon (spit-roasted suckling pig). Rows and rows of lumpia shanghai (fried spring rolls). Puto (steamed rice cakes) piled high. Mountains of pancit bihon (thin rice noodles stir fried with vegetables), pancit palabok (noodles dressed in a thick, smoky pork and shrimp sauce) and inihaw na manok (Filipino style barbecue chicken skewers). Vibrant bowls of buko salad (fruit cocktail in shredded young coconut and sweet cream). And on the dessert table: leche flan (crème caramel), cassava cake, bibingka (coconut milk cakes) and an array of colorful kakanin (sweet rice cakes).
Philippine food history began with native cooking methods that made the most of ingredients growing in the jungles, mountains and beaches of its 7,641 islands. It has been shaped by many outside cultural influences, including centuries of migration and trade with China, settlement by Arab Muslims in the south, 333 years of Spanish colonization, three years of Japanese occupation and 48 years under American rule.
The Philippines today is home to an extremely diverse population, with over 170 languages spoken across the island-nation and every kind of community, from mega-metropolises and gated cities to shanty towns and rural villages.
Adobo, the national dish of the Philippines, speaks to that history and diversity. It was an indigenous method of cooking and preserving food in vinegar and salt, and given its name by Spanish colonizers from the word adobar (meaning “to marinate”).
Besides vinegar, adobo usually also contains soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves and black pepper. Depending on which ingredients are local and fresh where you live, how much time you have to cook and how you remember your mom’s adobo tasting, the rest of the recipe can be individualized and improvised.
To me, this quintessential dish is symbolic of the Filipino immigrant. Rooted in tradition, but adaptable and resilient. Humble and unassuming, yet layered, complex and full of surprises. Able to make a lot out of a little.
At Ray Ray’s at the Mayflower on 34th Street at the Oceanfront, the chicken adobo is a tender boneless, glazed thigh that’s effortless to eat. “Filipino food for Northenders,” says chef and owner Ray Labuen, referring to the North End beach residents who pack his restaurant. Labuen’s menu marries classic American breakfast with Filipino flavor fusions in dishes like ube pancakes and his signature No Way Ray Ray sandwich—a fried chicken and egg biscuit topped with longganisa (Filipino sausage) gravy.
Labuen started his career in Palm Springs, where his parents were the first Filipinos to settle in 1938 and his uncle cooked at the famed club, Pal Joey’s. Scores of loyal Virginia Beach diners have followed Labuen from his time at the Belvedere, then Doc Taylor’s and Tautog’s. A stint at Auntie’s Tiki (a made-to-order Filipino restaurant that has since closed) gave him the opportunity to cook for the public the kind of food he grew up on and often prepares for his family at home.
Now he’s brought those concepts to Ray Ray’s, where his take on Filipino food is fun, a little refined and 100% Ray Ray. His ukoy (shrimp fritter) special, for example, uses luscious jumbo lump crab in place of the unshelled small shrimp that it traditionally calls for.
On the other side of town, chef and owner Emma Dizon eschews fusion in favor of “old-fashioned cooking” at her restaurant, Only at Renee’s. Dizon’s chicken adobo is a comforting and classic version adapted from a recipe she inherited from her grandmother, who owned a restaurant in the Philippine province of Pampanga in the 1950s.
A NYC transplant, first-generation Filipino-American and third-generation restauranteur, Dizon’s aim is to immerse guests in Philippine culture. Between the carabao figures and capiz lighting fixtures; the artfully displayed woven baskets and buri fans; the Philippine folk paintings and music; and the extensive menu of authentic regional dishes, a visit to Only at Renee’s is indeed a Filipino feast for the senses.
Taking no shortcuts, Dizon uses the freshest possible ingredients (hand-grated ube instead of frozen pulp, for instance) and makes every component of her dishes entirely from scratch (like her housemade ice creams and longganisa links). And while most Filipino food can best be described as “ugly delicious,” every dish from Dizon’s kitchen is plated and garnished with a designer’s eye (no doubt a result of her Fashion Institute of Technology education), just begging to be photographed and posted to social media. It’s Filipino food for both purists and hipsters.
“I love that everybody’s so different,” Dizon says of the local Filipino food scene. “That’s what makes us unique.”
Like adobo recipes, there are a few things all Filipino restaurants (and all Filipinos) may have in common. But each one has its own special story about the person or family that created it, where they came from and where they landed, and the rich history they carry with them.
Learn how to make Chicken Adobo with this recipe provided by Hannah Serrano.
Indulge with these Filipino sweets.
Check out the Coastal Virginia Filipino Food Directory.