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Portable eats: Lumpia, piroshky and empanadas around Tacoma

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Nov. 29, 2011 at 2:56 pm | 1 Comment »
November 29, 2011 2:59 pm
Angel's Original lumpia from Northwest Lumpia. Photo by Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer.

Dough and meat – it’s a universally understood pairing. Just about every culture has some kind of dough stuffed with some kind of meat, then baked or fried. In China, it’s bao. In India, you’ll find samosas. In Mexico, try tamales. In England, they have pasties.

Meat-filled dough is genius and has been a portable meal for centuries. And restaurants long have capitalized on our penchant for quick, inexpensive eats with the one-two, carb-protein fill ’er up punch.

I’ve noticed a micro-trend lately of tiny businesses serving dough stuffed with meats from far-flung places in the world. Two new restaurants interested me because they serve food not readily found in the South Sound region: Filipino lumpia and Russian piroshky. A third business is one I’ve encountered before and has appeared in this newspaper: an Argentinean empanada business that sells its turnovers three days a week out of a Tacoma bakery.

Northwest Lumpia
Where: 1607 Center St., Tacoma
Phone: 253-341-0234
Hours: 11 a.m.- 1 p.m. Mondays- Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, closed weekends
Note: Cash only, no credit cards

In an unlikely neighborhood for restaurants near the Atlas Foundry in Tacoma’s Nalley Valley, Northwest Lumpia is a peculiar find.

The building formerly housed Manila Center Diner, a Filipino restaurant owned by Angeles and Luz Marbas before the couple leased it to another operator for five years.

Recently, the building landed back in the hands of the Marbas family. It’s now operated by Charles and Rebecca Marbas, the son and daughter-in-law of Angeles and Luz.

The Manila Center Diner sat empty until a paint makeover in can’t-miss-it shades of yellow-green showed the business was springing back to life. Northwest Lumpia opened two months ago selling lumpia – and only lumpia – for a few hours every weekday. Yes. That’s it. A few hours a day. Only lumpia. No pancit or adobo or other Filipino favorites.

Charles Marbas told me by phone that in his post-Army retirement, he and wife Rebecca wanted to start a small, sustainable business. Lumpia seemed the place to start. He grew up rolling lumpia at the kitchen table with his mother while his father made the filling. The Marbas family found their way to Tacoma via Bremerton, where Charles’ father Angeles was stationed in the Navy until he retired. The family opened a restaurant in Bremerton, then moved to Tacoma and opened another. After the Marbas parents gave up on the restaurant dream, they moved to Colorado and are full-time grandparents.

Marbas called lumpia the underappreciated star of Filipino cuisine. “So many people call it a Filipino egg roll. … I want to introduce it into the mainstream so that when people hear it, they won’t have to compare it to another food. They’ll just know what it is.”

For the uninitiated, lumpia is, in fact, a kissing cousin of the Chinese egg roll. (Sorry, Charles, I had to say it.) The wrapper is thin and fries up crispy-crackly with an exterior so crunchy it practically shatters upon impact. Lumpia’s most common fillings are seasoned ground beef, pork or chicken.

At Northwest Lumpia, traditional flavors pepper the lumpia menu of a dozen varieties, but about half come with a fusion spin. There’s a Mexican spin with taco seasoning, as well as a teriyaki chicken lumpia. The couple also play with Filipino fusion – turning vinegar-marinated ground chicken into a piquant adobo-flavored lumpia, and ground pork into a crunchy sia pao-inspired roll. (A little translation for the uninitiated: Sia pao is the Filipino equivalent of a Chinese bao.)

Each lumpia costs $1 and is made to order. The fillings range from puckery to pungent, from salty to spicy and sweet. My favorites were the salty Angel’s Original, based on a recipe from Charles’ father, and the mojo crillo, a flavorful spin on a Cuban pork dish.

And it’d be a sin to visit Northwest Lumpia and not try the sweet banana and brown sugar-stuffed lumpia. It’s the best $1 dessert you’ll find in town.

Piroshky at Russian Piroshky in Milton comes in two dough styles.

Russian Piroshky
Where: 2800 Milton Way, Suite 1, Milton
Phone: 253-952-0524
Hours: 10 a.m.- 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday

The sign and business may look familiar, but the location is brand new for Russian Piroshky, a bakery that opened in Milton in December 2009 with a micro-focus on piroshky, a Russian and Eastern European creation made from yeasty dough and stuffed with meats or vegetables. It’s served warm and meant to be eaten by hand.

Olga and Roman Grezhdieru closed the business in January 2011 when a larger, better location opened up across the shopping center near Domino’s Pizza. They reopened in September in a space with floor-to-ceiling windows, a street view, and room for a very small grocery section where they stock Eastern European goods. They sell a handful of pastries, fresh bread and a few salads in addition to 10 varieties of piroshky.

Olga and Roman make their piroshky baked, not fried. That’s partly because of the lack of grease trap that is required by health codes to safely transport fryer oil to a sewage system. They’re working on installing a grease trap, but Olga told me by phone that diners seem to prefer the less-greasy baked piroshky.

Olga and Roman arrive early every day to make the dough from scratch. They make two kinds of piroshky: a yeasty, chewy, bready piroshky, and a buttery, pastry-style piroshky that flakes like a turnover. Fillings range from rich and savory to sour and salty. Piroshky are priced at $2.50-$3.25 each.

One of the most popular is a smoked salmon piroshky served in a yeasty bread pocket shaped like a fish and stuffed with a pate-style, smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese mixture flavored with a hint of onion and fresh herbs. A salty cabbage, carrot and mushroom piroshky stuffed into bready dough offered substantial, chewy resilience and sharp flavor from a dose of vinegar. The Bavarian sausage piroshky tasted like a hot dog baked in pastry – a Russian version of pigs in a blanket, if you will. Spinach- and feta-filled pastry piroshky tasted wonderful when warm, but had a short shelf life. I found most of the piroshky reheated well at home in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes.

The small bakery has a scattering of tables for dining in, but most of the business is take-out. The piroshky are served warm from the kitchen. If ordering more than one kind, you may want to ask that the piroshky be marked because the fillings are indistinguishable until you bite into them.

Roman and Olga are not bakers by trade, but landed in the business because Roman’s construction career stalled in the slow economy. They moved here from Wenatchee at the urging of family and decided to give the bakery a tray. The recipes are all handed down from family.

The empanadas at Pampeana Empanadas have a design on the outside that indicates the filling. Clockwise from top: chicken, sweet corn, spinach, carne (beef), and apple (at left, with a tail). File photo by Peter Haley/Staff photographer

Pampeana Empanadas
Where: They sell from inside Burning Cupcakes and at the Saturday Proctor Farmers Market.
Information: 253-752-2586 or
Hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays at Burning Cupcakes, 4312 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; at the Saturday Proctor Farmers Market through Dec. 3.

Pampeana Empanadas is such a small operation, they don’t even have a storefront. Not that they need it. The mother-daughter duo behind Pampeana Empanadas has been selling the baked South American turnovers to the public for five years.

They sell their empanadas from inside Burning Cupcakes on Sixth Avenue on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and at the Proctor Farmers Market on Saturdays through Dec. 3.

If you call ahead, they’ll bake them for you (it takes about 20 minutes). Otherwise, you can take them home with baking instructions.

The tiny business is run by Nancy Oltman and her daughter Alexis, who got the empanada recipe from a boyfriend. They started the business making the empanadas with a pre-fab shell they purchased, but they have switched to a homemade dough.

The flaky Argentinian turnovers have ropes, spikes and forked crimps along the edges to signify to the eater what’s inside. For example, the carne comes with a rope edge, the chicken with spikes, the spinach turnovers with crimps. They’re $2.99 each or $26.99 for a dozen (or $19.99 for an appetizer dozen). One makes a snack, but two or three make a meal.

Nancy and Alexis said they bake their empanadas instead of frying them because they just taste healthier. I agree. The dough is wonderfully flaky without the greasy mouth-feel.

Roasted corn tasted mildly sweet, the filling lightly spiced and threaded with sweet bursts of corn kernels and slippery green peppers. Spinach was gooey with feta, carne was lightly sweet, the ground beef tinged with tomato and garlic. Broccoli was assertively sulfuric, like a strong broccoli-cheese soup translated into a turnover. And the spiced sweet potato empanada was like a sweet potato pie in a little flaky crust. Thyme-flecked chicken with red peppers was the perfect savory lunch.

Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and the News Tribune pays for all meals. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or

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