When we walk into Mely's Kainan, the lone seat in the shop is occupied by Violeta, sister to namesake Mely. She is hunched over a small table cluttered with a cutting board, a bowl of seasoned ground pork, and a never-ending stack of spring roll wrappers. With the instinctive moves of a Cuban cigar maker, Violeta stuffs, rolls and seals a battery of slender lumpia, or Filipino spring rolls, which will be deep fried to order throughout the forthcoming lunch service.
Just three miles away from the Philippine American Cultural Center in Parma, Mely's offers a welcome taste of home for the large and growing number of Filipino expats living in and around Cleveland. Before Mely Gregorio opened this modest little cafe three years ago, the Filipino community had precisely zero restaurants to call its own despite comprising one of the larger Asian-American demographics in Cuyahoga County. The only other place to enjoy Filipino food outside the home is at Parma Heights-based Nipa Hut Oriental Food Mart, a grocery that has been hosting popular Saturday lunch buffets for years.
I ask my Filipino lunch companion, whose parents immigrated here before he was born, why he believes it took so long for somebody to open such a restaurant.
"It's not my theory, but they say the mindset of being colonized is so ingrained in Filipino culture, they always put assimilation before nationalism," says Tom Madrilejos.
But times — and trends — change. Diners these days are so hungry to experience something new that they're seeking out unfamiliar cuisines in out-of-the-way places as a matter of course. That's precisely why Madrilejos, a self-taught cook, began hosting twice-weekly Filipino pop-ups at the Spotted Owl, events that have been selling out thanks to high demand.
It's a bit of a stretch to call Mely's "a restaurant." It's more of a (cash-only) carry-out shop located in a small shopping strip on State Road. Before opening this storefront, Mely already had been known to many within the community thanks to her catering, which still finds its way onto tables at festive Filipino family gatherings.
Fans of the place know that it's always wise to call the shop ahead of time to see what's cooking for lunch or dinner. The menu changes daily, with weekends offering the widest selection. But with the right encouragement, Mely will make just about anything assuming she has the ingredients.
"They call up and ask what's special today," Violeta says mid-lumpia roll. "We tell them we have this, this and this."
Thanks to all that conquering, Filipino food evolved into a delicious amalgam of Spanish, Asian and American influences. The foods range from those very approachable lumpia (50 cents), which are thinner, crisper and meatier than your typical spring roll, to the more challenging dinuguan ($7), a stew of pork cooked with its own blood.
"I'm so psyched," Madrilejos says. "I haven't had dinuguan in years."
The dish is delicious, with tender pieces of pork languishing in a complex, tangy sauce. Like most Filipino dishes, this one benefits from a healthy dose of vinegar, which balances the earthy richness of the blood. Mely also crafts numerous versions of Philippine's most famous dish, adobo, a vinegar and soy-based brew that can be built around pretty much anything. One of the most unique and surprisingly appealing is the adobong pusit ($7), or squid adobo. The whole baby squid have just the right meaty texture, and the ink-black sauce is briny, mineral and bright. Like practically every dish on the menu, this one is served with steamed rice, which soaks up that amazing liquid.
"It's such an important part of our meals" Madrilejos says of rice. "Every home has a rice cooker. I even took one to college with me. When I met my roommate, I asked him where his rice cooker was."
Beef caldereta ($8) is like a Filipino pot roast, a slow-cooked beef stew with potatoes and carrots. The secret sauce in this dish is the mashed chicken liver paste, which is used to thicken the gravy and boost its flavor. Mely's also prepares about a half-dozen versions of pancit, often called Filipino-style pad Thai. Made with rice noodles and any number of proteins and sauces, the dish is extremely versatile.
Weekends usher in specials like fresh lumpia, which swap the deep-fried commercial wrappers with fresh housemade crepes. Kare-kare is an oxtail stew spiked with peanut butter and umami-rich fermented shrimp paste. Menudo, not to be confused with the Mexican version, is a flavorful stew of pork, liver, chickpeas and raisins.
This isn't fancy food, but rather the kinds of soul-satisfying dishes Filipino families have been making and enjoying at home for decades. Well, some of them anyway.
"Now they are too busy with family and careers to cook at home," Violeta comments. "That's why we opened up!"