The glamor and excitement of the giant cruise ships parked at the Port of Miami are not lost on Irving Matutina. As an immigrant from the Philippines in 1973, who arrived in Miami via L.A. and Chicago, he has had a long career in high-end food service, both as a maitre d' on luxury liners, and at the Sonesta Beach Resort. In 2001, he finally decided to strike out on his own. With his wife, Ruth, and sister-in-law Eva, he would use his family's cooking skills and years of training and hard work to create a menu of traditional Filipino dishes, both simple and complex, and serve those who disembarked from the Royal Caribbean leviathans at the port. But not the cruisers themselves; no, they are whisked away to Miami's predictable tourist sites, and never even see Irving's fantastic array of exotic fried fish and eggplant omelets. It is the people helping the passengers disembark that are Irving's customers-fellow Filipinos, who long for the tastes and smells of a Pinoy-home-cooked dish, like Pork Chocolate, something that will probably never be found on any cruise-ship menu.
Where is this restaurant you may ask? It is actually a food truck, a mobile eatery, or munch-wagon as I like to call them. The food is prepared fresh early in the morning to ensure Irving's arrival at 9AM at the port, in his usual spot, in the parking lot of Terminal F. The family, including the sisters' mother, prepares the daily menu every Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings in the small kitchen at the back of The Philippine Food Mart, their grocery store on Biscayne Blvd and 88th St., where the sign on the door says not 'Please Come In', but 'Tuloy Po Kayo', its tagalog version. Do you remember back in the old days of television, when a new TV reporter would come to town, and he or she would be sent on an overnight 'ride-along' with some police officers, to get a feel for their work, and the 'pulse' of the city. I suggest to Ruth, Eva, and Irving, that this can be better accomplished through an early morning drive in their rolling restaurant from Miami Shores to the Port of Miami, with some strong coffee and the aromas of fresh-cooked galung-gung (fried round scad, a local fish) permeating our senses.
On the ride down, Irving and I discuss family and food. He has three sons who work in the hospitality industry, including two who work on cruise ships. It turns out that because of poverty in the Philippines, working on a cruise ship is considered a plum job, allowing the workers to send home most of their pay. In fact, cruise ship workers are predominantly Filipinos, and over their ten-month tours, they get homesick. Irving sends them back home through his Pork Adobo and Pancit Noodles, among more exotic fare, like Bangus (fried milk fish), and Torta Talong, which is like a Spanish tortilla (omelet), but made with Chinese eggplant instead of potatoes. We also talk about Si-Si, one of my favorites, which is basically boiled pig ears, which are then dried, seasoned well with vinegar, soy, sugar, garlic, shallots, carrots, and tarragon, then broiled and cut into little strips- a great snack while having a cold beer or a drink.
Upon arrival at his regular spot, in a particularly unglamorous parking lot dwarfed by Royal Caribbean's 2700-passenger Majesty of the Seas, Irving prepares for the lunch rush. He knows the ship's schedule and the workers' break times, so that all of the more than a dozen dishes he serves are hot and fresh for their arrival. “We never recycle food,” says Irving, as he piles plates high with the aforementioned Pork Chocolate, which, as you can imagine, contains no chocolate. It is named for its chocolate-y color, which comes from stewing pork meat chunks and bits of stomach in pig's blood. (Back home it would include intestines as well, an ingredient that, according to Irving, is difficult to find in Miami.) The result is a tangy and richly fulfilling treat, a perfect counterpoint to another popular dish, that of perfectly cooked sweet head-on shrimp. “In the Philippines, or any market in Southeast Asia, you would never see shrimp sold without the head, ” says Irving, shaking his own head at the common practice in the US of beheading shrimp. “It is just not done.” The stir-fried squid, three-inch long whole tubes, not cut-up rings, purple and spongy in their rich seasoning broth of tomatoes, vinegar, onions, and garlic, is also a big seller on this day.
Additionally, Irving does some business selling packaged products from the Philippines, like those cute little puddings, and bright yellow cups of instant coconut/corn-flavored porridges. Some people even buy vitamins and other supplies from the truck, but the focus is on the freshly prepared delicacies like Longaniza, a fire-red sausage that manages to be both spicy and sweet at the same time, served with a pickled onion and tomato relish that perfectly complements those tastes. In the Philippines, every town has its own preparations for dishes like Si-Si or the Longaniza, but here in Miami, while the Si-Si is homemade, the Longaniza is imported. “It's too much trouble to make sausages at home, and these are almost as good as homemade,” declares Irving.
Even just the discussion of possible home sausage-making makes me understand the breadth of Irving and family's commitment to getting it right. Not for some claim to 'authenticity', but because back home in the Philippines, there would be no other way. And with all the tagalog being spoken around me, maybe a little bit of that seven thousand-plus island nation is transported halfway around the world, by the smells and tastes coming from a homey food truck, parked in a parking lot in the shadow of an exotic-locale-bound luxury liner. The ship's workers are all back on board, so we fold down the truck's stainless steel doors, and enter the slowly gathering early evening traffic of Biscayne Boulevard in our home, Miami.
Friday, Saturday, and Sundays, 9AM-3PM