‘Phil Am’ Store Offers Taste of Home

Phil Am Food serves the 16,000+ Filipino community of Jersey City, N.J. (Photo by Lai Wo via Open City)

Phil Am Food serves the 16,000+ Filipino community of Jersey City, N.J. (Photo by Lai Wo via Open City)

Erwin Santos has worked the shelves and aisles of Phil Am Food since he was five. His family runs the grocery store, which has served the Filipino community of Jersey City, N.J., since 1971. He recently sat down with reporter Lai Wo for an interview for Open City, an Asian-American online magazine based in the metro area. Topics ranged from the changing demographics of the state’s second most populous city, to edible specialities from the Philippines, the store’s significant overseas customer base and Santos’ hope that Filipino food can someday reach the status of other lauded Asian cuisines.

Santos’ father opened the store only a month or two before Santos was born. Since then, Phil Am Food has catered to the growing local Filipino community – now over 16,000, or 6.5 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2010 Census – and to customers in states as far away as California, as well as Filipino-American soldiers stationed abroad, thanks to its online store.

Erwin Santos (Photo by Lai Wo via Open City)

Erwin Santos (Photo by Lai Wo via Open City)

Wo began by asking about Jersey City, and Santos noted that the large pockets of Asian communities now inhabiting the city have built up the local restaurants.

When I was younger, there was a really big Polish and German community here. Now, there’s a lot more Indians. Still a lot of Filipino people here. There’s a large concentration of Chinese people – Vietnamese, Thai. You’ll see a lot of pockets and you can tell by restaurants. When I was driving through Jersey City last night and I saw a lot of restaurants that I didn’t notice before. And that’s a part of the city I drive through often. I’ve seen a lot of small ethnic restaurants that I used to go to now in bigger locations because their clientele has gotten bigger. You can always tell by the food scene.

After describing the various jobs and the “SUPER busy work” his father had him perform, Santos described the snacks that fill the store’s shelves – though it really all comes down to the chips.

And, on the phone, you told me that chips were your most popular items. What are some popular snacks aside from the chips?

We do a lot of fruit snacks too. A lot of fish. Dried mangos as a snack are kind of mainstream now; back in the day, no one knew what dry mangoes was. The savory snacks are pretty big now, Dilly’s, squid snack – those are getting pretty big.

But, really, it’s still the chips.

What kind of chips?

Well, you see…barbeque is barbeque, right? But, then we have barbeque chili, barbeque cheese. Filipinos have a very weird palate. When I go home to the Philippines, I have to make sure when I order something that I’m familiar with, that I tell them not this and this. If you’re here in America, you can just order straight a hot dog, “Let me get a hot dog.” They’re going to send it out to you plain. Or, hot dog with chili or hot dog with sauerkraut. That’s the normal stuff.

If you go to the Philippines, and you’re like “Give me a hot dog,” they’re going to put ketchup, mustard, relish, mayonnaise, cheese. Their palates are very different there. Like big flavors. A little bit of everything.

Like fish sauce.

Oh my god – they put fish sauce on everything! We have it here by the gallon. You know, GALLON. Vinegar–by the gallon–for the kitchen. And, you see it being used. Five gallon tubs of oyster sauce. We are into big flavors – not the healthiest of foods, cause do we eat a lot of pork–and a lot of frying. But, hey, I guess enjoy food, enjoy life.

Those chips and the other foods get shipped to a crucial clientele: Filipino-American soldiers stationed overseas. Santos recounted how they initially did not ship to APO [Armed Post Office] addresses because they didn’t know what such an address was, but after “a very long email – a very impassioned email from a solder,” which Santos still keeps, the store filled in the extra paperwork and got the ball rolling.

It’s particularly meaningful to Santos that when the soldiers return home they remain loyal customers.

I guess a lot of my APO customers are Filipino. That’s what they’re used to at home and that’s what they want. I’m always happy to see that when I get a customer that orders once a month, and then later when they order, I recognize the name, and it’s a US address. Cause you know what? They’re back. That’s a nice thing. They did their tour and they haven’t forgotten about me.

The interview then turned to “strange” items the store has had imported (“whitening feminine wash”) and odd foods (fermented rice, which “for Filipino people is typically 30 day-old rice”).

Santos spoke of his personal hope – that Filipino food one day receives the recognition that the various cuisines of its fellow Asian countries already enjoy.

For me truthfully, I just hope more people realize how great Filipino food is – that’s kind of my private mission. Not just for my business. But, just for Filipino food to be recognized to be a great Asian food. Because every other Asian food has exploded and everybody knows it. Except us. And, if I can be on the ground with that and I can be part of that and people know that I helped it, that would make my day. That makes me happy.

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