A lunch counter Filipinos call home

Eating on the Edge: Oriental Mart, nestled in Pike Place Market, has been serving authentic Filipino fare for nearly 40 years.
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Oriental Mart in Pike Place Market

Eating on the Edge: Oriental Mart, nestled in Pike Place Market, has been serving authentic Filipino fare for nearly 40 years.

The Philippines'ꀙ greatest export, it could be said, is its labor. As many as 10 million of its citizens, at least 10 percent of its population, work abroad, and contributed more than $18 billion in wages to their country'ꀙs economy in 2008, according to the World Bank.

Men typically take jobs in construction or in the maritime industry; women work in the service industry as maids or caretakers. Filipino migrants are employed all over the world: in Dubai, Hong Kong, Seattle and places between.

The cruise ship industry, for one, hires thousands of Filipinos as crew. And when those ships are in port in Seattle, waiting to embark to Alaska usually, the Filipino busboys, waiters, casino workers, and cabin attendants often head to the same place, a tiny grocery and 15-seat lunch counter in the Pike Place Market.

Officially called Oriental Mart, it is more popularly known as Ate Lei'ꀙs place, or simply the Filipino place. Ate Lei (pronounced ah-tay, the title translates to respected older sister) is the owner Leila Rosas, whose family has run the business since 1973 in a coveted spot in the Corner Market building, where Pike Street runs into First Avenue.

Although located in one of the city'ꀙs most visited institutions, near its main entrance, the lunch counter itself is inconspicuous, serving as its own camouflage, so plain and modest it hides in plain sight. But for those seeking it out, there is no missing it.

Josephine Cosgapa, a young Filipino woman recently from Singapore, rode a bus two hours from Everett to eat lunch there recently. The food, she said, is unmistakably authentic, capturing the taste, look and feel of home. Those who know the Philippines say Oriental Mart is almost exactly like eating lunch in Manila, not just for the flavors of the food, but the shopworn atmosphere, the informal manner of service, even the look of the pots and pans used in the open kitchen. It is like eating in your favorite aunt'ꀙs kitchen, if she happens to be Filipino.

'ꀜThis place is like (the TV show) Cheers,'ꀝ said Rosas, who was 11 years old when she and her older brother left the Philippines in 1969 with their father. 'ꀜIt'ꀙs where everybody hangs out — mailmen, lawyers, doctors, policemen'ꀦ Asian, black, white, Hispanic, everyone likes the food.'ꀝ

Many are regulars, whom Rosas knows by name. Their photographs are posted near the cash register. A popular Filipino singing group, the 'ꀜSociety of Seven,'ꀝ ate here when it performed at the Muckleshoot Casino. So did Jasmine Trias, a Filipino-American singer who finished third in the third season of American Idol.

Rosas also feeds a lot of the workers from the market'ꀙs produce and seafood stands, which also provide her with the salmon tips for her sinigang, a tart soup seasoned with tamarind and made with fish, tomatoes, onions, and greens.

The menu is simple and inexpensive. Rosas serves four dishes, costing between $6.50 and $8.95: the sinigang, chili beef, pork adobo, and chicken adobo, the most popular dish. All entrees are served with long-grain rice and the national noodle dish called pancit, which can be made with wheat noodles, clear bean-thread noodles, or with short, thin rice noodles. Rosas makes the latter, called pancit bihon.

Any meat can be cooked adobo style, the national preparation of the Philippines. Adobo is a braised dish, cooked slowly, using soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and garlic among other ingredients. Rosas has her adobo recipe posted on the wall.

'ꀜPeople still come back and eat here,'ꀝ she said. 'ꀜThey say, 'ꀘIt'ꀙs not the same as yours,'ꀙ or 'ꀘYours is better.'ꀙ It'ꀙs the way I cook it. With lots of love.'ꀝ

Most of the food is not made to order but prepared in bulk ahead of time. So if you arrive to eat late in the afternoon, the food will have been sitting in a hot tray for a few hours. Predictability, not variety, is the strength of the place.

When the mood strikes her, she will offer a special of the day, perhaps pan-fried pork chops, menudo (her Filipino version contains pork meat, not tripe), arroz de valenciana (Filipino paella), beef soup with bok choy, or dinuguan, a pork stew thickened with pig'ꀙs blood.

Filipino cuisine bears some resemblance to the food of other southeast Asian countries in its use of seafood, noodles, similar spices, tropical fruits and vegetables. Like all Asian cooking, it is heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine. But the food of the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, is unique in Asia because of its Spanish heritage.

Rosas described the food of her homeland as 'ꀜPolynesian with a Spanish flair'ꀦor Spanish with a Polynesian flair.'ꀝ

The Spanish, who along with the Japanese and Americans controlled the Philippines for a time, introduced chili peppers, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, beans, and the common practice of sautéing with garlic and onions. Most of the dishes Rosas prepares begin with that very step.

A few years after her father, Manny Apostol, arrived with the two oldest kids, her mother, Mila Apostol, came over with the youngest three. A sixth child was born in Seattle. Rosas'ꀙ father, a college professor in the Philippines, worked odd jobs until finally settling on selling insurance. Mila used the family'ꀙs life savings, including her children'ꀙs summer job money, to start the Oriental Mart.

The store sells Filipino, Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese groceries, many of which are used in the restaurant, which opened several years after the store. Manny passed away a few years ago; Mila lives in the Newmark condominium tower nearby. Leila and her younger sister Joy Mori share most of the work in the restaurant along with a close family friend, Fe Vergara, 75, known as Manang Fe. (Manang is an honorific that refers to a respected elder, someone who acts as a third parent.)

The kitchen is open to view. The four-burner electric stove, which is covered in a black crust from years of cooking, is at the center where Rosas or Mori can cook, spatula and plate in hand, and converse with customers at the same time. The aluminum pots are 20, 30 years old and stained from use. The pair of giant 22-cup rice cookers are also at least that old. On the busiest days, they can cook up to 15 batches of rice.

'ꀜIf it'ꀙs not broken, don'ꀙt throw it away,'ꀝ Rosas said.

After almost 40 years of running a business in the market, the shop faces an uncertain year. The city has cleared the way for a major renovation of the market'ꀙs infrastructure. Its plumbing will be upgraded. New bathrooms will be built. Seismic improvements will be made and elevators added. The work will displace the Oriental Mart for an uncertain period of time. Rosas is not sure where it will be moved or how long the relocation will last.

Undoubtedly, her customers will find her place. During the summer cruise season, the lunch hour becomes a cheerful frenzy with people lining the counters two and three deep. The banter between staff and customers is consistently lively. The tableside manner depends on the mood and the chemistry. Some might get an indifferent if not cold shoulder. But if a connection is made, the place can feel like hanging out with family.

'ꀜNot only do you get good food, you get free entertainment when my sister and I fight,'ꀝ Rosas said. 'ꀜWhen Joy does the cooking she sometimes yells at the customers. They cut in line or order at the same time. She says, 'ꀘWhen I look at you, then you order; if I'ꀙm not looking at you, don'ꀙt order.'ꀙ The worst thing you can say to her is, 'ꀘCan you hurry it up?'ꀙ She doesn'ꀙt like that.'ꀝ

If you go: Oriental Mart, 1506 Pike Place Market, 206-622-8488. Open 10 am to 4 pm seven days a week.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.