If it weren’t for the Filipino noodle dish, Pancit, Alexa Alfaro, her siblings and Filipino food in Milwaukee wouldn’t probably exist today. Sounds far-fetched? It won’t be after you read this story.
Once upon a time, in a faraway and sparsely populated land called Alaska, there lived a Filipino immigrant named Ray Alfaro. Ray, born and raised in Caloocan City, worked at a hospital where he met Deb Fucile, an Italian-German nurse from Wisconsin. Ray fell head over heels for Deb. Problem was he couldn’t muster the guts to ask her out. Then an idea formed. Why not get someone to do it for him? And so he asked a colleague, an avid pancit fan, to be his messenger in exchange for pancit. Long story short, Ray and Deb wed and had three children. One of them is Alexa, who now with her brother Matthew, owns Meat on the Street, the first and only Filipino food vendor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Matthew and Alexa Alfaro
Filipino food in Milwaukee? Who would have thought that there would be a demand for this previously obscure food in this sparsely Filipino populated city? Meet Alexa Alfaro and find out how she introduced and created an addiction for Pinoy food in a city in the Midwestern U.S of A.
MFB: Have you been to the Philippines?
I visited the Philippines when I was in 5th grade for a six-week trip that turned into eight weeks. It was a trip I remember to this day. The culture and infrastructure from a developed country to one that’s just developing is permanently engraved in my memories. It was magical and heart breaking.
Our drive into the Tondo area was the heart breaking part. Along the sides of the roads were children living in cardboard boxes and tires. I’m talking three, maybe four- year old orphans.Some of these children had younger siblings, whom they had to take care of. At a very young age, they had to work and provide for their younger siblings. It was an eye opening experience for me at 10 years old.
Prior to this trip, I had taken for granted a “normal” shower, drinkable water, and Wisconsin summer temperatures. My Philippine stay included showering with a large plastic bucket and a pot. You fill up the large plastic bucket with cold water, scoop the water with the pot and dump the water on your head. Now in 115 degree weather, one shower is not enough so this was the routine usually a couple times a day.
Now let’s talk magic, aka food. To me food is magical, in taste and how it can make you feel. First experience was the street food in the Philippines. Now the US only had ice cream trucks at the time but the Philippines had everything. My cousins and I constantly snacked on mango lychee flavor ices and ate pork BBQ from the street vendors.
Next was the fish market. Now while the smell was rancid and could make you gag, the visual trumped it. Fish hanging, fish on tables, fish on bins, fish in buckets, fish in crates, nothing is refrigerated, no ice in sight, just fish for as far as the eye can see and the nose can smell.
Also, I was lucky enough to see one of the vast rice fields in the Philippines. Getting there was an adventure on its own. First, the AC went out. Second, it took forever to get there. Third, as breathtakingly scenic as it was it was equally breathtakingly terrifying – single lane road along a winding cliff. But once we were there it was an amazing sight. Level upon level upon level of green. Terraces holding water. Military with semi-automatic weapons. I now know I had the privilege to see one of the wonders of the world.
MFB: What was it like for you, of Filipino heritage, to grow up in Wisconsin?
AA: Growing up in southeastern Wisconsin and being Filipino made me stick out.
It started when myself and two younger brothers were babies. People would constantly ask my mom from where she adopted her beautiful children. My mother is Italian-German. She viewed this as an insult, replying she carried each of us for months and gave birth to us. It’s still a sore subject to this day that we all like to tease her about it.
In elementary school, I was constantly confused with another girl in my grade who had an olive skin tone. Emeli is Puerto Rican and we look nothing alike.
Growing up we always had a pot of rice with dinner and my dad would not accept macaroni and cheese as a dinner choice. My dad would allow us to eat with our hands. I only eat my rice if it has soy sauce on it which must be Kikkoman.
Other Filipinoness? My dad would crack his wing bones in half to suck out the marrow. Lastly, we started eating sushi, the raw stuff, at a young age. Overall, very Filipino.
I realized how different Filipino food culture was from American food culture when my friends would come over for dinner or go out to eat with my family. One of them referred to sinigang as lake water. Fine, more soup for us.
Also, it was a little hard to explain to your friends why your dad had a fish head the size of a football in your fridge. Yes we eat it, no it’s not that weird.
For my birthday, every year I would request as much Filipino food as my mom would allow us to make. Usually the menu consisted of pancit, lumpia, and pork BBQ on a stick. At first my friends were hesitant to try it. Now they are proudly addicted to Filipino food.
MFB: About how many Filipinos are there in Milwaukee? What is the general perception on Philippine cuisine there?
AA: There are approximately, 1,700 Filipinos in the Milwaukee area according to the Internet.General perception of Filipino cuisine is dependent on your experience. If you had it, you remember it and love it. If you are lucky, you know someone who will get you your fix or invite you over for a Filipino family party. Otherwise you were SOL (sadly outta luck) until late June of 2014…
MFB: How did you get started in food? What prompted you to set-up Meat on the Street?
AA: I began formally working in the food industry at 15, my first job was scooping ice cream. I was paid $5 an hour. From there I always worked in the food industry, Famous Daves, Buffalo Wild Wings, a raunchy beach bar, and an upscale steak house in Milwaukee. This might sound weird, but I enjoyed making people happy with food, it felt comfortable and a lot like home for me.
My early years and informal food beginnings started with my dad in the kitchen. He taught me how to chop, dice, slice, roll, skewer you name it. We would stay up late rolling eggrolls or skewering meat. He would tell me stories about his childhood and family. To this day my dad brags of my lumpia rolling ability. He would make all sorts of different food with different flavor and spices. I am almost always willing to try it.
Meat on the Street began in late June of 2014. It started when I was working as an engineering sales intern. My summer project was to determine if the company was losing money based on their current quoting procedure. Based on my data and results I determined they were and it was a lot to me. They told me awesome job and they might present it to the big wigs at their yearly meeting. I thought if a company can potentially be losing X amount of dollars and run while profiting I can definitely run a business.
I knew engineering was not going to be my long term happiness and I asked myself what would make me happy. I kept gravitating back to food. It had been a running joke since I was 12 that my dad would open up his own restaurant. I thought, well, why not make that joke a reality. I researched food trucks on a national level, then at the local level. I looked at competition in Filipino cuisine, Asian cuisine, and then food truck wise. It was a no brainier. People loved our food. We would serve it at every big party and there were no leftovers. Guest would ask, when is the meat-on-a-stick arriving? That was when the idea of a Filipino food truck was born.
Now telling your Filipino father who is an electrical engineer when you are in engineering school that you want to drop out 22 weeks from a degree to pursue a Filipino food truck is downright gut wrenching. That’s why you start with your mom. Her reply, “That’s interesting.” Thanks for the words of encouragement mom. Finally I worked up the courage and pitched the idea to my dad. His response was the purchase of a used WE Energies truck in the middle of December.
Three seasons in and it still feels like a dream. We have been so well received by the city of Milwaukee. People love the food. Whether they are first timers or looking for a little home cooking.
The name came from my brother’s friend, Josh. He is insanely intelligent and I do believe you will know his name one day. My brother Christian asked him for suggestions. Meat on the Street was one of them. It was a done deal.
MFB: Please define your concept, target market and goals for Meat on the Street. Long-term plans?
Alexa and Matthew Alfaro in their Meat on the Street Filipino food truck at Kilbourn Park, Milwaukee, Wis., Tuesday August 16, 2016
AA: Meat on the Street’s concept is authentic Filipino food and traditional American food with Filipino twists. Our menu consists of BBQ sticks, aka meat on a stick. This is common street food in the Philippines. We serve beef, chicken, or pork. We have white rice, our delicious garlic rice, and pancit, a traditional Filipino rice noodle dish with vegetables and seasonings. We also serve pork adobo, chicken binakol, and lumpia rolls. We sell an American version of kimchi which is our veggie slaw. It’s a green and red cabbage, carrots, and onions with a sriracha, soy-honey dressing.
Our target market is anyone who is hungry. Our menu has been designed to provide meals of substance, meat and carbs and/or veggies. We have elder Filipino who enjoy our food and little kids whose parents come back for 2-3 orders because their child enjoyed it so much and they didn’t get any.
As for now, Meat on the Street is Milwaukee’s only Filipino food vendor. We are expanding this year into a food court styled location at ELEVEN25, 1125 N. 9th St. Grand opening is on Dec.5. This space will be open Monday through Sunday from 10am to 9pm. Our menu will include our current truck menu, with plans to add more Filipino dishes and ramen. There is seating inside and we will offer take-out.
With our Milwaukee location underway, I am looking at Madison for our 2nd location with some type of mobile cart. Chicago area is a 5 year plan for us.
MFB: Which Filipino dishes are the favorites?
AA:Meat on the Street’s best selling dishes are garlic rice, pork adobo, and the meat sticks.
Meat on the Street’s Adobo Bowl
The number one question for the garlic rice is, “What’s the secret ingredient?” To which we reply, “Garlic.” There is no secret to our garlic rice. It’s white rice, garlic, oil, salt and pepper. We have customers who come back for seconds or have eaten with us before and purchase two orders right away. One for now, one for later (maybe a few minutes later, wink, wink).
The adobo is like a blast from the past for many Filipinos in the area. I’ve found that the younger generations of Filipinos are less likely to be able to cook the food. They find the truck and are ecstatic. For them, it’s as close to being in their nanay’s or lola’s kitchens. We’ve heard our adobo is out of this world, I would die for this dish, and more.
A conversation I was lucky enough to overhear was a guy eating our pancit at a Milwaukee County Zoo event we attend. He took a bite, looked at his wife, and said, “I miss my mom.” For us, there is no greater compliment.
The meat sticks is where it all began. Our first year of the truck, this was the only item on the menu, meat sticks with a side of white rice, garlic rice, or pancit. People of all ages love them. Children will come back three, sometimes four times. Their parents are willing to buy their children as many as they want. Other times, adult men will order two sticks, come back for three, and then come back for three more. The most we have ever sold to a single person is 21 in 15 minutes. He claims his family kept eating his; we never judge how many sticks you order.
MFB: How far is Filipino food from crossing over in Wisconsin? What else can be done to give it a boost?
AA: Unfortunately, Filipino food has awhile to go in Wisconsin. We are the only Filipino food vendor in Milwaukee. There is a Filipino cart with American-Filipino cuisine, and possibly one more location more north-west?
The best thing for Filipino cuisine is awareness. Once you have it, you know it and are addicted to it. We have people who will glance at the menu; a Filipino dish catches their eye and BAM! They are ordering and excited.
MFB: What do you consider as your greatest challenges and accomplishments as the co-owner of Meat on the Street?
Greatest challenge in the beginning was getting people to try our food. We are seen as ethnic food and Matt and myself look Filipino. This sometimes makes people wary to try us. We have had our friends come down, given them free food to stand outside the truck and eat. People will then stop and ask about it and are more willing to give us a try.
The other challenge, as anyone who has worked in a family owned business is working with family. It is great, don’t get me wrong. I feel very blessed to be able to do this with some of the people I hold closest to my heart. However, you try working with your siblings and parents on a 90 foot square box in the midst of a crazy event with 50 people in line on a hot day. Let me know how it goes. It can get heated. We are all able to laugh about it after the fact but in that moment it’s a different story.
Meat on the Street in Milwaukee
Our greatest accomplishment is where we are today. We have met so many individuals who love our food, Filipino’s who have flashbacks when eating our food, and the success we have had to this point. It is truly amazing to me that I can say that I own and operate a food truck for a living with my brother. That is great accomplishment, being able to have a personal and working relationship with Matt. The business strains it for temporary moments but it also strengthens it.
My mom tells people when asked, our greatest accomplishment is legacy, the present lives on through the past. Our legacy as American-Filipino sibling entrepreneurs is to be able to simultaneously share our culture and have each other’s back. It brings tears to her eyes.
MFB: If someone asks for your opinion about the viability of opening a Filipino-inspired restaurant in your area, what would you say?
AA: I would say there definitely is viability. This was our goal and we are excited for this next chapter in our business. We think our ELEVEN25 location will be well received in the downtown Milwaukee area.
I definitely think starting with a food truck was the better route. It got our name out there, we were able to market ourselves to a large audience all over the Milwaukee area as opposed to settling in one permanent location and getting people to come to you. I believe if you are passionate and willing to put your heart and soul into it, anything is possible.
*Alexa Alfaro is one of the contributing authors of our upcoming book, My Food Beginnings – a collection of Filipino food memoirs.
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by Jacqueline Lauri of My Food Beginnings – a Filipino food anthology project
Bringing people together through food and stories.