“THERE’S NO REASON why this can’t be a destination restaurant,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Ann Kim. “Whilma could put Searcy, Arkansas, on the map with her restaurant.” It’s a scene from a Season 4 episode of Small Business Revolution, the online television series that takes brink-of-blight small towns and, with the help of experts and $500,000, restores and rehabilitates them. In February 2019, Searcy beat out 12,000 other communities from across the nation to star in the series.
The episode focuses on the rebranding and restructuring of Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant, owned and operated by Whilma Frogoso, whose family immigrated to the United States in the mid-2000s. Arriving with little more than their suitcases, Whilma began working at the local Walmart. Five years later, another Filipino immigrant gave Whilma the chance to open her own restaurant and has been feeding the residents of Searcy since 2009. Unfortunately, as no one in the family had experience in the restaurant industry, Whilma’s sputtered, barely managing to survive the summers when hungry college students, its primary customers, were in short supply. Enter Small Business Revolution with a team of designers, cooks, and business consultants, and Whilma and her restaurant were primed for success.
When I first heard Whilma’s story, I was, of course, curious. Who was she? What was she doing in Searcy? But then, after Small Business Revolution aired and answered those questions, I had to ask myself what Filipino food actually is.
The key to understanding the what of Filipino food is understanding the why of Filipino food and of the Philippines itself. The Philippines, as a nation, is split into 18 regions and 81 provinces, all spread across some 7,600 islands in the Pacific Ocean. The nation of 100 million has a long culinary history, one that weathered and was shaped by a history of repeated colonization. It’s possible to trace out a rough history of the Philippines on a plate, ingredients and influences from the nations that have ruled over it combining spoonful by spoonful. Indigenous island flavors are at once marred and built up by the country’s conquerors: the Spanish, the Chinese, the Japanese and the tsunami of American taste.
But the geopolitics of her food isn’t what Whilma is here for. “I don’t like to be well-known,” she says in another scene from the episode, brushing her dark hair back behind her ear. She presents her version of her country in a wistful, whimsical dining room, wrapping her guests in a sherbet shade of green as if diners had sat down at the edge of any of her homeland’s uncountable beaches.
It’s another mark of the show—the dining room. Transformed from the gingham red-and-white table cloths to a sleeker, shinier version of itself, the restaurant’s branding has changed as well. Vibrant shades of red, gold and green jump out from the restaurant’s menu, website and facade. They aim to hearken back to the Philippines, but they just as loudly speak as a reminder that what happens inside these walls is a far cry from what you might expect in downtown Searcy.
That’s what I found waiting for me on my visit to Whilma’s, a restaurant shining in the night. An invitation to adventure. “Kumain ka na ba?” the menu asks. Have you eaten? As close to “did ya eat yet” as the Filipino language gets. I hadn’t, and I was glad to have arrived hungry.
The menu, though whittled down considerably by the television show, is expansive, offering a survey of the Filipino cuisine. There’s a comfortable juxtaposition to the way Filipino favorites lie next to more well-known options on the menu. In each instance, diners are rewarded for choosing the item most unfamiliar. Sure, you can get the traditional egg rolls, but just above them is the lumpia, an addictive egg-roll-esque appetizer made of paper-thin dough that cracks like thawing ice in your mouth. Similarly, wonton soup is available, but it was the sinigang, a sour tamarind soup of tomato, cabbage and okra that was so good that I slurped the last of the broth straight from my bowl.
The best dishes at Whilma’s are the ones she labels “specialties,” the classic dishes of her homeland. Out of all of these, adobo is the most famous, as much of a national dish as a nation of more than 7,000 islands can have. It might be appropriate to compare Filipino adobo to barbecue sauce in the South—less a dish and more an institution, and even more often, a closely guarded secret family recipe. The key to good adobo (though I am an admitted adobo novice, I’ll posture that Whilma’s adobo borders on greatness) is in its balance, its ability to counter sourness (vinegar is a key ingredient in adobo and much of Filipino cuisine) with a panoply of earthy, warming spices. Great adobo should taste like cuddling under the most comfortable blanket in the world while walking a high-wire balancing act between the two tent poles of sour and spicy. It doesn’t matter where you’re from: When it’s right, you know it.
The episode ends with Whilma, tears in her eyes, hanging a portrait of her father on the restaurant’s wall. “I’m guided by him,” she tells the camera. “I can’t forget him.” Her father’s favorite dish of lemon garlic pork steak, inihow, sits pride of place on the menu. It was one of the first dishes she learned to cook on her own, recalling his recipe from memory.
That Arkansas’ only Filipino restaurant should be in Searcy, a college town on the edge of the Delta, is the exact kind of makes-you-go-hmm story that Arkansas’ culinary landscape, and indeed all of Arkansas, is made of. But equally mystifying is why Filipino food has taken so long to play a prominent role in the story of American and Arkansan cuisine. With its patchwork of flavors borrowed from three of America’s most Americanized global cuisines—Spain, China and Japan—it would seem that Filipino food is primed for its moment in the spotlight.
But now, as Filipino restaurants open in coastal states from a new generation of Filipino American chefs, and as the cuisine is hailed in rave reviews on both seaboards, Arkansans can say that there is at least one foodie trend that they’ve got the jump on. Kumain ka na ba? Yes, as a matter of fact, we have.