(lead photo- Chefs Rina Estero and Luke Brigham of Nouvelle Restaurant)
Part 3- Filipino Food Fest: Mariam’s
Article by Chris Fellini with photography by Joshua Fitzwater
Like all good adventures, this one started with some mishaps. I got a text from Raymond Braza early yesterday morning saying that his uncle wouldn’t be able to entertain us at his restaurant Kapamilya, in Virginia Beach. As much as he wanted to make some of the more traditional dishes for us to try, since their new focus is on more Filipino-American standards such as adobo and pancit, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. We decide to go to Susan’s Kitchenette, instead. I bump into Joshua Fitzwater, Rina Estero, and Luke Brigham later in the day, and we’re all in agreement about meeting up that evening. One problem: I forget to tell them to meet Raymond and I at Toast, first. At about 6, when we’re all supposed to be meeting up, I get a call from Fitz. Not only are they at Susan’s, which is way out off of Diamond Springs near Northampton Blvd., but it’s also closed. Rina immediately throws out a backup place, which is also closed on Monday. Third time’s a charm, and Rina suggests Mariam’s, which is open today. Mariam’s is around the corner from Susan’s Kitchenette, off of Shore drive, so they’ll be there in a few minutes. Raymond and I are still at Toast, almost 30 minutes away. Gandhi Holub is also coming, and he’s near Azalea Garden. Raymond decides to wait at Toast for Gandhi so they can drive together. As I’m leaving, Ray tells me that Chad and Ed Ladia are also coming, but they’ll just meet us there. I head out, hoping to get there before they break down their food, since they close at 8 and it’s already 6:30.
Several “GPS Signal Lost” warnings from my phone, the world’s lengthiest gas station stop ever, and a few wrong turns later, I finally arrive to Mariam’s. Luke, Rina, and Fitz are all inside at a small table halfway through eating. I have friends who grew up around the corner from the Bayside Shopping Center, and remember the hot dog spot that used to occupy this space. When Mariam’s took over, they didn’t do much in the way of a remodel. The kitchen is open, diner style, and runs the length of the countertop bar. There are a cluster of tables spread throughout the rest of the space. In the back, is a small steam table set up turo turo style.
(above- sisig at Mariam’s)
The lady behind the steam table is super friendly as I look over my options and Fitz suggests some things. I ask if they’ve got dinuguan (unfortunately, they don’t), before I settle on chicken afritada, Bicol Express, and some pancit. There’s a pint container of sisig at the table, which I happily take a couple spoonfuls of. It’s missing the gristle that can sometimes be off putting, and has a nice spicy kick to it. Rina explains to me that it should have that spice to it, and that’s why she prefers the sisig here over Susan’s or FeLynn. She tells me how she’s from the same province as the lady who first created sisig, back when it was just a way to utilize pigs’ heads that American soldiers were going to waste. Like BBQ and ribs in America, sisig is a way to make some less than ideal scraps into a hearty and delicious dish.
(above- chicken afritada and bilo-bilo at Mariam’s)
The chicken afritada reminds me of chicken noodle soup, without the noodles. There’s a rich creamy broth that’s incredible on the rice, as well as sliced potatoes and carrots. I can imagine this being an immensely filling dish in the dead of winter. Bicol Express takes it’s name from the passenger train that runs from Manila to the Bicol region and consists of tender pork slow cooked in a coconut milk broth that has the consistency of gravy. The green chili in the Bicol Express is reminiscent of a green pepper, with a slightly bitter taste. I try Rina’s lechon paksiw, which is completely different than the lechon I’ve had before. Traditionally, lechon has a crunchy, almost fried, skin from the way it is basted while being roasted. In lechon paksiw, however, the meat is simmered in the liquid. This creates a meat that falls apart to the touch, very much like good BBQ would. The taste is intense. Flavors of vinegar meld with a sweetness and the fattiness of the pork, creating a rich umami backdrop to the tender texture of the meet.
(above- bicol express at Mariam’s)
As we’re all nearing the end of our meals, our hostess asks if she can get us anything else. She sells us on a bilo-bilo to share at the table. Bilo-bilo has a soup-like consistency. The main liquid is coconut milk. Added to that are slices of sweet potato, banana, and jackfruit. Both large and small pearls of tapioca float in the mix, with the larger ones having more of a starchy consistency. The dish is sweet, but not sugary. Instead, it derives it’s sweetness from the coconut milk. That kind of subtle sweet that’s never overstated pairs perfectly with the tapioca pearls and fruits. We all lean back in our chairs, fat and happy, as the rest of our gang arrives.
(above- Chris Fellini of Southern Grit and Rina Estero of Nouvelle Restaurant at Mariam’s)
Like all good adventures, there were several missteps and miscommunications along the way. Like all good adventures, friends make it better, even if they show up at the end of the meal. Sitting in Mariam’s, with a first generation Filipino and a bunch of Filipinos I grew up with in Virginia Beach, we started talking about the culture. Rina is much more in touch with her heritage, a result of growing up there. The guys retain less, a product of assimilation in the states. We talk about the importance of preserving heritage, and learning how to make these foods that make Filipino culture. As our adventures in Filipino come to a close, I’m glad I got to learn as much as I did, and with so many good people. I’m still going to continue seeking out dinuguan, and balut (which I still need to try) and sisig, whenever I pass by a place. I hope to find a kind enough Filipino to teach me how to make some of these things myself. As a third generation Italian, I’ve gone through some painstaking work to regain some of my heritage that was lost to assimilation, so I can only hope that Filipino-Americans hold fast to some of their roots in becoming part of the bigger American dream. America is a great melting pot, but we should all remember our heritage and embrace it.
Mariam’s Fil-Am Cuisine is located at 4801 Shore Drive Unit A-3, Virginia Beach, VA
Mariam’s website- http://mariamsfilamcuisine.com/
Special thanks to Rina and Luke of Nouvelle Restaurant
Nouvelle’s facebook page- https://www.facebook.com/nouvellerestaurantnorfolk