From Pampanga to Pittsburg: Home-cooked Success Story
One California-scorching Sunday afternoon, I have decided to get myself buco-pandan from a small casual Filipino restaurant nearby. Being a frequent customer, I know some of its daily staples on the sterno-warmed unit greeting customers as they enter the cozy Filipino food haven. The Friday has mongo; Sunday has kare-kare – served with hot rice and complimentary sinigang broth; but Chicken Adobo, Pork Sinigang, and desserts are served every time – halo-halo, buco-pandan, leche flan, ube, maiz con hielo. If the turo-turo doesn’t appeal to you for that day, the rattan plate smorgasbord hanging from the ceiling might be of appeal – breakfast meals, short orders, pansit of all sorts, and lumpia of all types.
I remember the first time I had been to this store, ordering something from the turo-turo for lunch and not really thinking that I would be a fervent client of years now. Aside from the food that makes it distinct from any other Filipino restaurants I’ve tried, the restaurant offers me a feeling of being at home or at the comfort of your family. Interestingly, my Kapampangan side of the food palate was more than satisfied when I’ve found out that the owner is a kabalen. The name of the restaurant has been true to what I’ve felt – eating something home-cooked. Thus, Lutong Bahay.
Lutong Bahay sits at perhaps one of the most important streets of Pittsburg, California – Railroad Avenue. While there are a number of Chinese, Mexican, South Asian, and American food stores in the area, there is only one Filipino restaurant in this little town strip. Prior Lutong Bahay, the site housed Italian Express – a restaurant offering dishes of, yes, you guessed it, Japanese food. Just kidding. Italian, definitely. The owner of Italian Express sold the restaurant to Lorina Mopera, a Filipina migrant in her 50s, who seems to have more stories to tell than food to cook. From Italian Express, she changed it into what now is Lutong Bahay. I affectionately call the good lady ima (Kapampangan term for mother). Before settling in Pittsburg, Ima used to rent the kitchen of Morning Star Cafe in Concord where she cooks for her catering business. Seeing potential, she tried making a restaurant out of it, but, unfortunately, things did not turn out well with the owner – who was also Filipino. (I am not sure if it is due to the complacency due to culture, but this is not an old story to Filipinos familiar of crab mentality. Not that I am putting anybody into bad light, but I just wanted to state an observation.)Claiming it was God’s will, Ima has found a new haven in Pittsburg and named it Lutong Bahay.
Lutong Bahay is a very humble and cozy place to get good food from. There is not much buzz but you can observe from its most frequent customers the mark of guaranteed satisfaction. And this wonderful ingredient, I believe, is brought about by the woman behind the stove – Lorina Mopera, herself. On first impression, I didn’t think she was obnoxious or grouchy. But it was herself who told me that she actually is, even to customers! I just laughed while she reminds me of my aunts who seem to be reenacting the Philippine Revolution while conversing in Kapampangan. True enough, if the one she talks to is not as quick to catch up, they would not appreciate her witty sarcasms and dark humors.
Over buco-pandan and halo-halo, while taking a break from her long hot day inside the kitchen, she shared to me her struggles decades back before becoming a successful restaurateur. Coming from a poor family in the Philippines, her inspiration was to have her family stick together. With candor, she shared how she was adopted into the family who paved her way to move to the United States. In old Filipino folklore style, she shares that her biological parents lost five baby girls few days after childbirth. Then a village elder told the couple that if they want to have the sixth child to live, they should give it to a childless couple. It happened that a married childless relative residing in Pasig was willing to take the child. The adoptive parents took care of Lorina, exposing her to cultures of both the rural and the city. Things have not always been at a joyful stance. Her adoptive parents practically separated and her father migrated to the United States. Ima, then, saw this as an opportunity to start a new and better life with her family. Coming to the United States, she made it her goal to make her family together, talking to her father and mother to make amends. She was successful. And while she petitioned for her biological parents, too, it has not turned out too well due to legal and time constraints.
However, she relates frustrations by helping other people. The first and probably the most important person she has helped was the one she married and with whom she had her four children with. Just like similar stories, Lorina offered this guy marriage as more of a practical deal to help. The guy, Hermie, was in the US, searching for better opportunities while travelling in a tourist visa that he was granted while in Italy. Claiming they didn’t love each other, then, they married after three days of meeting. The support venture turned out well as they are still happily married for almost four decades – a relationship dynamics where the power husband supports a power woman in attaining their dreams in different ways, but with hands joint together. While Hermie has a marketing background, hers was in banking. All of Ima’s jobs in the US were in banks and probably a factor as to why she is very much successful in her ventures. But more than that, she knows how to value the money she earns as she looks at her hard work and the potential that these value would fruit into. Before venturing into catering and food service, Ima used to supply Asian supermarket chains with Filipino-style spring rolls. We would not have know had she continued, but she claims that with her clientele reaching up to Nevada at those times of her lumpia business, she would have been richer. But she decided to stop because she wants to invest more of her energies to her family, especially her kids, who were all in their critical years back then. Just recently, her youngest child, Gina, who just recently married, seems to be a viable candidate in succeeding the kitchen throne of Lutong Bahay, being a professional chef. As for Ima, I am not sure. But, whatever happens to the family business, Ima is the face, the voice, and the pillar of their tiny, but proud family enterprise.
After all the hardships she has gone through, the challenges of being poor, the struggle of being an immigrant trying to find her new place in a new land, the scuffles that come with family and marriage, she is obviously determined to do something that will make her happy. She might be successful to the eyes of others due to what she has already achieved. But, as I see it, her success is not in the value of the business but in her spirit which just does not know how to cease. Her success is not lying on the capability to retire. Instead, her success lies on her motivated restlessness.
When I asked her for words of advice to Filipinos who want to break into the glass ceiling, she has two words and a smirk.
I paid my bill and ordered for a fresh lumpia to-go so I could taste part of her success while writing her really flavorful story. Perhaps, my words would never be enough. People should go and try the food that she has to offer and the tales she keens to share. Go. Do it.