Eight months ago, Leila Rosas found out her Filipino restaurant in the Pike Place Market, Oriental Mart, earned one of the America’s Classics awards from the James Beard Foundation, but the restaurant has had almost no chance to share the excitement and joy with customers.
“I was just really surprised, really shocked a little store like our place could win something this big,” she says of the 18-seat lunch counter tucked into the back of her family’s Asian food store. She didn’t even realize how huge it was, at first. “It took us almost 50 years to get this reward,” she says.
The honor is given to local restaurants that have “timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of the community,” according to the Foundation (there will be a virtual ceremony September 25). But the restaurant was closed when the announcement happened in February — Rosas had bought tickets for her annual vacation to the Philippines the previous July. On her trip, she did her usual research, ordering food, tasting different dishes, and figuring out how to remake them in the restaurant, this time while answering an avalanche of congratulatory calls with texts letting people know she was halfway around the world.
Before she closed, Rosas left her customary note in the window letting diners know when she planned to reopen — and that she would be in a better mood whenever she did return. It struck a similar tone to the dozens of hand-written, lovingly snarky signs around the counter that keep customers informed and organized, such as, “To all u knuckle heads, don’t talk 2 me while I’m cooking,”
But instead of returning to reap the rewards of the good press, Rosas came back to a pandemic and two weeks of quarantine.
She finally reopened Oriental Mart briefly for takeout in June, before her husband returned from the Philippines and they quarantined again. “This was the longest vacation I have had,” she laughs. “Having to sit all day, this is new to me.”
As she cooked for her sister and cleaned her house to keep busy, she answered customer inquiries about reopening. “We take it week by week.” (Fans can keep up with what’s happening through her Instagram, OrientalMart71.)
Staying closed until late July hit Oriental Mart hard: tourists usually pack the dining area and crowd around the glass case of food. The three or four cruise ships each weekend that normally send passengers to buy souvenirs and knick-knacks at the attached shop run by her sister are gone, as are the Filipino employees of the boats who crowded into devour tastes of home in the form of Rosas’ chicken adobo, pancit, and salmon sinigang.
Rosas opened the kitchenette side of Oriental Mart in 1987 (her mother opened the shop in 1971), but the new unpredictability of the business forced her to make changes.
“It’s not like stir-fry, cooked quick by the order,” she says of her dishes. “Everything takes a long time to make, two to three hours, so if you don’t use it, you have to throw a lot away.”
Rosas switched up the food, focusing on silog — fried rice with an egg: bangsilog with boneless milkfish, longsilog with boiled and pan-fried sausage. “I’m trying to figure out which menu will work best,” she says. “People can’t go in back and choose what they want.”
It’s a big switch for a place where one of those famous signs read, “We don’t have a menu ‘cus I cook what I want (depends on my mood).”
But what Rosas cooks depends on something else, too: what happens around her in the market. She doesn’t leave the kitchen to get her ingredients. “My produce stand, I see it from my kitchen, I just yell and they bring it over,” she says.
That’s also how she gets the fish for one of the dishes the James Beard Foundation highlighted in awarding the shop: the salmon sinigang.
Using seafood from the famed Pike Place fish market across the street, Rosas makes the sour tamarind soup with tomatoes, leeks, jalapeños (but not broken, so it isn’t spicy, she’s quick to add). Even with the menu overhaul, she plans to continue making the soup as long as the fish guys have salmon collars.
“Everything is a question mark right now,” Rosas says. But customers have been coming by to buy food and support her — and so she’ll keep making her best-known dish. “I could cook it ten times a day — and I do on a busy day.”