Oriental Mart, a Pike Place Market restaurant famous for its Filipino salmon tamarind soup, is about to get busier when it reopens in the spring. This hidden counter located in the back of a grocery store just won a prestigious James Beard Foundation “America’s Classics Award,” the Foundation announced Tuesday morning.
The award is usually given to mom-and-pop businesses that the James Beard Foundation judges determine “have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.”
Leila Rosas, the self-taught cook at Oriental Mart, said in a phone interview on Tuesday morning that her family never imagined the James Beard Foundation would bestow such an honor to “a restaurant that is just a hole in the wall.”
With just 18 seats, Oriental Mart doesn’t follow traditional rules in the food industry. No website. No menu. The menu — about five to seven different items daily – is assembled at the whim of Rosas, who likes to mix things up so she doesn’t get bored. “I cook what I want so that I don’t get tired of cooking the same thing every day,” she explained.
Rosas’ recommendation for first-timers who are confused over the no-menu setup: Just order her “Do you trust me plate?” where she serves up a hot plate of pork or fish and other sides, ranging from $16.99 to $22. It’s enough food for two.
The lunch-only restaurant is famous for its sinigang, a tamarind sour soup made with salmon collars, and during the summer Oriental Mart is known for its dinuguan, or pork-blood stew that is especially popular with visiting cruise ship staff, many of whom are from the Philippines. Locals also swear by her pancit, longanisa and adobo.
Oriental Mart was started in 1971 by Milo Apostol as a grocery store. It didn’t earn a cult following until a decade later, when it expanded with a counter-seating restaurant in the back that focused on the family’s native Filipino cuisine. Apostol, who at 89 still works during the summer, relies on her two daughters, Rosas who cooks, and Joy Mori who works the retail end.
The great thing about being at Pike Place Market, said Rosas, is that she doesn’t need to walk more than 5 feet for her ingredients. The market’s fishmongers bring her the catch of the day every morning, and her veggies come from neighboring stalls.
The timing of the award, though, couldn’t be any worse. Rosas, as she does every year, closes the restaurant in February and heads to the Philippines for vacation. The restaurant won’t reopen until April 1.
Since the James Beard Foundation started handing out the The America’s Classic Award in 1998, at least two other Washington state businesses have taken the honor: Los Hernandez Tamales in Union Gap in 2018 and Seattle’s Maneki in 2008.
Oriental Mart will be one of six 2020 “America’s Classics” recipients to be honored at the James Beard Awards Gala on May 4 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.