closing to open

Miguel de Leon
6 min readJan 8, 2019

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Tamà is closed. In the version of what it was most currently, it won’t come back. Sad to say it, truly. But there’s hope for us yet.

Two years ago we were presented with an opportunity that felt too good to be true: our own space serving our own food to a neighborhood that we felt was deeply underserved and was worth getting to know. Bed-Stuy had never seen a Filipino restaurant, and where we were situated was along a food desert, populated only by a spare bodega here and there or a shuttered Chinese takeaway. We had stories to tell with our food, and the timing was right; we felt like we had a good group of people with us to tell our story.

Filipino food will always have stories to tell. It’s history and innovation, it’s intercultural exchange at its best. It’s a lot of secrets and passed down information from one person to the next. Appropriately, most Filipinos seem to enjoy tsismis — gossip — which is how some of our recipes and relationships are born.

We’ll have plenty of opportunity to see where this takes us. It’s not a detour, it’s not even a roadblock — it’s just something that we needed to do for ourselves. There’s a saying in Tagalog: Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan. He who doesn’t know where he came from will never reach his destination. We needed to look back in order to confront our future, and we’re hopeful we’ll be back in some other fashion, whether or not it’s as concrete as this brick-and-mortar purple home we’ve inhabited for a couple of years.

Our stalwart neon sign that told our guests to #followtheube

Filipino food is all about memories. From prehistoric cooking to its Malay-Chinese trading roots, its contact with colonial Spain, and the lasting impact of wartime America, its history in dishes is an impressive melding of cuisine and culture. Where else can you find dishes with Spanish names that look Chinese with Mexican ingredients and Indian influence? The dishes themselves are customized by sauces and vinegars to fit one’s palate, and there we find these deep-seated memories in people, from when they tried their first invigorating sip of coconut vinegar laced with garlic and chili, or their piqued curiosity after tasting homemade banana ketchup. Our cuisine takes the past and jettisons it into an optimistic future, though our culture of hiya — shame — makes us embarrassed of something that looks or smells even the tiniest bit offensive.

Compound those individualistic memories and hiya with over 7,000 islands, each of which has its own prehistoric, pre-colonial identity; and on each of those islands, every group or family with its own set of preferences in customizing their recipes, and you get closer to what the diaspora is dealing with. Whenever we get asked what Filipino food is, we compare it to other cuisines: it’s like Thai but not so curry-based and less herbs, or it’s like Spanish food but with bigger plates and less bread, or it’s like Chinese but with more meat and less noodles — and that’s not counting the Filipinos and Filipino-Americans that came through our doors with the notion that Filipino food was their purview and expertise since they grew up with it but it’s not as good as how their grandmother makes it or they can make it better so this isn’t worth paying for.

The tricky thing with memory is that sometimes it fails you in ways you wouldn’t expect. And sometimes that ideal version of something that’s in your head fails you in allowing to enjoy what’s in front of you, even though it sparks a beautiful memory of family, or of your childhood, or of that moment you realized that the lunchbox you brought to school was different from everyone else’s and now you’ve had to apologize for how it’s stinking up the lunch room so you start buying lunches and they’re never as satisfying as the packed lunches your mom made so you start asking her to make that food at home but she’s a modern working woman so cooking isn’t really part of her agenda or identity anymore so you start rummaging for recipes or asking her how to cook something and you try making it when she’s not there and it’s close but it will never taste like how you remember hers tasting but then it’s yours and it’s how you cook that dish and it’s going to be how you cook it forever.

Many times when Filipinos came to us there were so many pre-conceived notions of what we were supposed to be, and we actively tried to subvert those. We blasted hip-hop since we were in the neighborhood where it came from. We were environmentally responsible by using recycled and compostable plateware. We had white guys manning the counters and doing deliveries. We had a chef who wasn’t Filipino. In a few of these subversions people probably dismissed us but we tried hard to make sure that we were serving a neighborhood that so desperately needed somewhere good and affordable to eat, and even then, when no plates were over $12, people were balking at the price point.

But if the food is so precious and the memories are so deep, why aren’t we willing to pay for it to excel, to surpass those notions, to unseat all of that hiya? We’re worth it, goddamn it. Why couldn’t we see it?

We were lauded when we opened about our optimism and what we could bring to the table. We were young, we were excited, we were untested. We ground ourselves to the bone most days trying to keep the restaurant alive, whether it was to make sure there was enough prep for service or to scrub the floors, and the press was kind to us in a way that we never expected (nor, really, I think we ever fully deserved). It was exhilarating. It was exhausting.

Tamà was what we decided to call it since it was easy to say and it had a lot of layered meaning in Tagalog: you could use it to mean “correct,” you could use it to mean “just enough,” you could use it to mean “bullseye,” you could use it to mean “successful.” Yes, there’s plenty of irony and hubris there too, but at the moment it felt just right, támang tamà. We were lucky to have been reviewed by the New York Times and given a place in New York Magazine’s Thousand Best, and the neighborhood took to us in a way that caught us almost off-guard. We hired messengers for delivery, we had other Filipinos in restaurants in Brooklyn who were happy to see us succeeding, we were slinging chicken adobo and sisig burgers to a hungry audience that was cautiously adventurous.

Filipinos made it known how disappointed they were.

“It’s too expensive.”
“It’s not authentic.”
“Nothing special.”
“This is fusion food.”

Lots of shoulds, coulds, would have beens. Should be cheaper. Could be more like what I grew up with. Would have been better if you had just gone to Queens. Crab mentality, as it turns out, is just as Filipino as our love for karaoke and beauty pageants. When one succeeds, the group doesn’t count it as a success. It was a target.

But there was an audience out there who was eager and enthusiastic and hungry and committed and decidedly not Filipino. Unbeknownst to us at first, the audience and the neighborhood we were trying to cater to wasn’t Filipino, and to other Filipinos, it looked like we were copping the name to get credibility. That was never the goal nor the intent. We just wanted to make good, honest food, inspired by our own faulty memories of growing up with one foot on the islands and another in America.

Now that we had an audience to answer to, it was even more crucial to keep up with demand. Physically it was possible, but mentally and emotionally, it was draining in a way that could only be described as debilitating. We could barely keep up with our relationships at work. We didn’t want to fracture what we had when we weren’t there. And how often could you identify as a Filipino when everyone was questioning the core of your identity? So in the spirit of self-care, and at one of its most successful runs, we walked away.

The successes we bore out and the time we spent aren’t meaningless; I hope the neighborhood felt as enriched as when we were there. I hope people got to understand Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy a little better, and I hope every other Filipino restaurant that’s still going keeps going. We just needed time for us to look back, re-center, and do what’s right for us. We’re still young. We’re still excited. We’re not so untested anymore, and we’re grateful for that — it’s given us the wisdom to say, it’s time, it’s just enough, it was successful already.

Tamà na.

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Miguel de Leon

restaurant operator, wine director, sommelier. cal 05, nyc since 07. MNL -> LAX -> SFO -> NYC. //\\//\\ ig @migueld1 tw @migueld // he/him