Filipinos are passionate about their food. I grew up with the pungent aroma of garlic and banana ketchup on sticks of chicken caramelizing on the grill—the highlight of family gatherings. Birthdays were always celebrated with pancit and lumpia that my mom would make from old family recipes. My family’s cravings would be satisfied when we visited my uncle in NYC and ate at Filipino staples like Krystal’s Cafe or Jeepney, or when my aunt brought us ube cakes from a Princeton bakery on her visits. But growing up in Philadelphia, there were hardly any local Filipino food restaurants we could go to for a “home–cooked” meal. So when Tambayan first opened in July 2021, my family was naturally thrilled.
Rather than driving to New York or New Jersey, we hopped on the Broad Street Line to Reading Terminal Market in eager anticipation of some of our favorite dishes. From longanisa to Filipino barbeque to pandesal, we ordered meals that had graced our family dinner table on so many special occasions. But a trip to Tambayan afforded us an opportunity to enjoy them on an ordinary weeknight in Philadelphia.
Tambayan owner and chef Kathy Mirano’s road to serving Filipinos, Philadelphians, and tourists wasn’t straightforward. After immigrating to the United States from the Philippine city of Batangas, she worked as a manager and server at Olympia Gyro in Reading Terminal for 21 years.
COVID–19 took a toll on Reading Terminal. Hours were reduced, and no one was coming to the market. Recognizing that the pandemic offered her an opportunity to do something else. Among her friends, Mirano was known for her Filipino food and baked goods, so she decided to take the plunge and open up her own online desserts business. Runner’s Sweets N Treats was born, and orders started pouring in.
As Runner’s became a successful online business, Mirano's boyfriend, John Karmanski, started to push her to expand. “People love you, they love your food. Why don’t you make it more serious?” she recalls him asking.
Then, one day, Pearlman got down on one knee and asked her if she wanted a ring or a restaurant. “I chose the restaurant. I can lose the ring, but with the restaurant I can make more money,” Mirano recounts. She opened Tambayan in July of 2021.
Mirano aims to create a casual atmosphere, serving street style food in a comfortable environment. “At Tambayan, you don’t have to dress up. If you’re sweaty or anything, you can just sit down and you can still enjoy our Filipino food no matter what,” she says.
All of the recipes offered at Tambayan are “authentic,” passed down through generations of Miranos. “I don't twist my food,” she says. “Everything on my menu here is made with love. Nothing fancy, just a simple menu that I grew up with.”
While Mirano can't pick her own personal favorite dish (because she loves them all), her customers’ favorites are the barbeque skewers, Tapsilog, and fried lumpia. She marinates her barbeque for a week, giving it that rich sweet yet savory taste that melts in your mouth. Tapsilog is a cured beef dish served with garlic rice and a runny fried egg. Mirano says it's a great hangover cure. And fried lumpia (my personal favorite) are pork spring rolls that you dip in sweet chili sauce. No one can stop at just one.
Tambayan is the first Filipino restaurant in Reading Terminal. According to Mirano, having her restaurant in the market is a double–edged sword: On the one hand, it's hard to compete with all of the other amazing offerings. On the other, it allows her to share her culture with tourists from all around the world.
“I am so grateful to be here because even though it's hard to compete with everybody here, Tambayan is not only serving food, I'm also serving my culture,” she says.
Despite Mirano's initial fears of the stiff competition in Reading Terminal, Tambayan has thrived over the past two years. It’s become so successful that the restaurant is expanding to a secondary location in December 2024 in either Fishtown or East Passyunk.
Since Tambayan’s opening, Mirano has received many inquiries from customers about hosting events. But because Reading Terminal is only open until 6 p.m., she’s had to decline those requests. With this potential new location, Mirano is hoping to have a venue for night time parties and serve her dishes with alcohol, such as the Filipino beer Red Horse, in the evening.
“Running a business is not easy, but I'm learning from my business now … my heart says that I have to expand no matter how hard it is," Mirano says. "I think I will do business for the rest of my life until I die because I love serving people and I want to expand."
As I ate her pancit after our interview, I realized the importance of Mirano's vision for her restaurant. In Tagalog, Tambayan means “a place for friends to hang out.” Mirano has extended the meaning of the word: It also means a place to meet new friends.
Even though we just met, our shared culture gives us a starting point to converse. We talk about our parents’ use of 7–Up in their barbeque recipe, our excitement at the semi–recent opening of Jollibee in Northeast Philly, and where our families are from in the Philippines. Tambayan is a place for Filipino tourists and native Philadelphians to gather and enjoy a meal from their shared heritage, but people from all cultural backgrounds can appreciate Mirano's amazing food and welcoming hang out spot.
“I’m proud to be Pinoy,” she says. I am too, and Tambayan has opened a door in Philadelphia to allow me, my family, and other Filipinos to remain connected to our culture.