It’s late Thursday morning and already the staff at M.A’s Filipino Cuisine are busy. Cars are lined up at the drive-thru window, the telephone rings frequently, and owners Aicy Munsell and Monette Laird smile as they carry trays through the dining room and hand out samples of the day’s features to patrons ready to place their lunch orders.
You might not think the restaurant would be so busy at 11:15 a.m.; nor might you think that a shopping center not far off of Interstate 57 in Marion would be a hotbed for Filipino food, but locals and visitors alike have fallen in love with the restaurant and the cuisine, making the restaurant — and its charming co-owners — popular ambassadors for both their homeland and its food.
Munsell and Laird are natives of the Philippines but had never met until both relocated to southern Illinois. They became fast friends and, as is often the case with friends, conversations turned to food and how they both loved to cook. This camaraderie evolved into a desire to share the tastes of their native country beyond their families and friends.
The pair opened a food truck, but soon discovered its popularity exceeded what they could produce. “We had high demand, but a lot of people couldn’t catch us,” Munsell recalls. “We would run out of food because a food truck has limited space and we were the only Filipino restaurant around.”
Parking the truck late last year, the pair opened the restaurant, where they found space to offer more selections, a dining room and serve more happy customers. The brick-and-mortar location also gives them a chance to share the hospitality of the Philippines.
“The main thing is for us to share our culture, to bring Filipino culture here through our food,” Munsell says.
She adds that the restaurant’s most popular dish has a bit of an American twist to it. “It’s the pork barbecue combo — while it is Filipino, it’s the most American thing we have, and you can’t go wrong with the barbecue. It is pork barbecue on a stick.”
Of course, the restaurant offers a wide range of traditional Filipino tastes, too. “Filipino food is different from other Asian cuisine,” she explains. “It’s more savory and flavorful.” By its nature, Filipino food is a mixture of sweet, salty and sour flavors. Rice, noodles and vegetables are mainstays in many dishes.
“When you think about Filipino food, you are going to think about noodles and things like chicken Adobo and pork Adobo and, of course, lumpia,” she says. “A lumpia begins with ground pork with some vegetables, such as carrots, bell peppers and onions, as well as seasonings. It’s wrapped and fried crispy and served with a sweet chili sauce.” Be careful not to confuse a lumpia with a spring roll found in other cuisines. “It’s meatier and larger,” she adds.
All the staff members at M.A’s are happy to share about their products and are even happier to share samples. “We offer free tastes to everyone — samples of what we have ready,” Munsell explains. “We want people to try what we have so that they are not ordering something unfamiliar.”
It is rare that those who sample the food do not like it. Usually, they fall in love with just a bite or two. In fact, Munsell estimates that 90% of her customers had never tried Filipino food before coming into M.A’s. “They keep coming back,” she boasts. “Plus, we probably get 10 or more new customers every single day.”
She adds that the restaurant’s location close to the interstate makes it a sort of destination for those traveling through the region. “We have about 85% repeat customers,” she says proudly. “I think the others are travelers who just haven’t come back yet.”