“I remember just reading through each and every email and social media post. .
It was the first time she realized that Mai’s was more than just a small Vietnamese restaurant — rather, it was a staple in Houston. When Mai’s finally reopened April 26, 2011, the mayor declared it Mai’s Restaurant Day.
Pham’s grandparents, refugees from Vietnam who came to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975, started Mai’s in 1978, initially as a pool hall serving late night bites to the Vietnamese community.
Like many other migrants, the Phams brought their cuisine with them to the U.
As part of Vietnamese American fine dining, outposts such as the multigenerational Crustacean in Los Angeles and Le Colonial in Houston serve dishes like crispy vegan rolls and five-spice frites, in addition to bánh mì chả cá (fish cake sandwich) and phở bò (beef noodle soup).
, six days a week.
“A good example of this is the lumpia.
When it’s not, like, the lumpia of your mom, then everybody’s going to go crazy. Like, ‘Why do you have sea urchin in your lumpia?’” said Olalia, who grew up in Pampanga, a province northwest of Manila, Philippines.
“I need to express myself as a chef, with the cuisine as my medium. I’m prepared for the questions and that backlash sometimes.
The lumpia at Ma’am Sir in Los Angeles is made with sea urchin and shrimp.Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios
He said now the culinary world seems to be catching on to the flavors — and popularity — of Filipino cuisine. He has also found a community among other Filipino American chefs including Chad and Chase Valencia of LASA in Los Angeles and James Beard Award-winning chef Tom Cunanan of Bad Saint in Washington, D.
“It’s been fun just pushing the cuisine together with all our different points of view,” Olalia said.
Diners and chefs in the Midwest are also evolving.
For Alexa Alfaro, introducing her father’s recipes for pancit rice noodles, barbecued skewers and sinigang soup to her hometown of Milwaukee has been challenging, first and foremost because she must explain to customers why they should try it in the first place.
’ Well, have you had it? And they’re like, ‘No,’” said Alfaro, who started the Meat on the Street food truck with her brother, Matt, in 2014. “We constantly heard that, or ‘Well, it’s spicy.
The restaurant recently added a “Taco Tuesday” menu featuring Filipino-infused takes like the Mexipino (calamansi citrus fruit-flavored beef and cotija cheese) and an “adoborrito,” a burrito filled with pork adobo, garlic rice and calamansi-Sriracha.
She credits late celebrity TV chef Anthony Bourdain for bringing Filipino food into the spotlight and also social media with helping grow the palettes of Milwaukee diners; she is toying with the idea of doing a “secret” menu of more niche dishes, like balut (boiled fertilized duck eggs).
“We feel lucky that this is what we get to do every day.
We feel lucky that we get to represent our culture and cuisine in this way. I don’t know if I would have identified as much with my Filipino side had it not been for opening up the business,” Alfaro said.
Rice bowls from Meat on the Street in Milwaukee.
In the 1980s, southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin, known as lhotshampa, were expelled from the country; according to Amnesty International, 100,000 Bhutanese refugees have fled to neighboring Nepal since the early 1990s. Many have lived in United Nations refugee camps for more than two decades.
Eighty-five percent of those refugees have resettled in the U.S.
Tenzin Norbu opened Yak n Yeti with his wife, Sanya Yeh, in 2016 in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. Norbu, who is of Bhutanese and Nepali descent, grew up in Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu, before moving to the U.
S. to pursue a master’s degree.
“When you think of a cowboy, you think of a cactus, right? The yak and yeti are the two things you think of from the Himalayas,” Norbu said of naming their restaurant, which features both Bhutanese and Nepali dishes like momo dumplings and aloo sag, a spinach and potatoes dish.
Yeh said she’s particularly fond of introducing customers to ema datshi, a dish made of chilies and cheese.
The Nepali fries (French fries in homemade sauce) was Norbu’s idea, a fusion spin on aloo bajji potato fritters, one of his favorite snacks.
The couple relocated from New York City to central Pennsylvania where Yeh grew up and discovered the Bhutanese new refugee population, who, Norbu said, have taken to the cuisine, as have other diners previously unfamiliar with region and its food.
In 2018, Yak n Yeti opened a second location about 20 miles away. Norbu said he hopes to open a third location in the future.
“This is food I grew up with. I’m happy that people are reacting to it.
And it’s very simple food to be very honest,” he said.
The same goes for Alfaro.