The fading light of the winter sun catches in his light brown curls as he squints at her, fondly. Her graceful neck arches back as she laughs, bits of pork crackling dribbling down her bronzed, tan chin and landing in her shoulder-length black curls and on the front of her gray knit tunic. “Now you’ve got some chicharon down your front,” he mock-chides, brushing the snack bits off her before taking her hand in his. White and dark fingers intertwine in relaxed grip. Their eyes meet and he gives her a brisk, affectionate peck on the lips.
The Hoy Pinoy story, indeed the story of the Meehan couple’s Cafe Italia, the Meatball Company, Everybody Loves Ramen, and Frankie Says, is something of a love story, dating all the way back to 1995, when Regina Meehan’s family left Olongapo City, north of Manila in the Philippines, and settled in the outer-Western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Regina’s father lost his job after the closing of the U.S. Naval base in Subic Bay and the American servicemen departed. After two years of working overseas, he decided to permanently resettle his family in Melbourne. Regina was 16, and had just completed her junior year of high school in Olongapo. She started Year 10 in Melbourne in March of 1995, where she was classmates with a white Australian boy one year her junior. His name was James Meehan and his one burning ambition in life was to become a chef.
Regina and James married at 18, at a time when many of their peers were going to university, making travel and career their priorities before settling down. Regina completed her Bachelor of Science degree whilst rearing two young sons. James started his apprenticeship at Cafe Italia as a dishwasher.
Fast forward to 2015, where Hoy Pinoy is a thriving mobile business, drawing thick and winding queues to the distinct smell of Filipino pork and chicken skewers (inihaw na baboy/manok) coated in a sweet, banana ketchup glaze. Unlike the few existing Filipino sit-down eateries that attract an almost exclusively Filipino crowd, Hoy Pinoy is beloved by people from all backgrounds. They have taken the markets by a storm, earning the devotion of market goers from Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. Even though they are primarily associated with chicken and pork barbecue, they have also begun introducing lechon (whole roast pig on a spit), a classic staple in the Filipino fiesta (family/village party), lechon kawali (crispy pan-fried pork belly), as well as rellenong pusit at hipon (squid and prawn stuffed with tomatoes, onions and garlic, roasted over open fire). Beginning this year’s winter Luna Market at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market, they will pioneer pork belly sisig on pan de sal flat bread, transforming a festive Filipino main usually served atop steaming rice into a standing-room friendly appetiser-sized sandwich, with all the charms of a thoughtfully made taco.
The appeal of Hoy Pinoy lies in its laid-back, self-possessed, quietly confident authenticity. Its goal is not to take Filipino street food and make it haute, or hatted, commanding prices that would put off its current mobile market following. Hoy Pinoy has always valued sticking to the basics: why improve on perfection? The recipes are all from Regina’s family. The Hoy Pinoy staff are all Filipino, and they communicate in Tagalog and English. All the food is cooked fresh on-site immediately before serving. The seasoning and spices are from the Philippines. Advertising, aside from mentions in the promotional material for mobile markets and food festivals, is strictly by seduction: tempted by the smells and the crowds, people pile into 15-20-minute queues, and after finding satisfaction at the end of a barbecue devoured all too quickly, bring their friends the next day. The open-air grill that thickens the air with smoke and the scent of roasting meat swathed in savoury-sweet marinade are reminiscent of the Olongapo street food vendors making their after-school rounds, a memory still fresh in Regina’s mind after over 20 years of resettling.
The atmosphere is nostalgic for 1990’s Olongapo, the Olongapo in which Regina grew up, which James has now visited several times. The images on Hoy Pinoy’s signage are all sights from Olongapo. Yet the couple’s feet are planted firmly in the present day. All the charcoal (uling) they use for their barbecues is sourced from the Philippines. All the skewers they use are handmade in the Philippines; in fact, they say they have employed a whole regional village to produce their skewers that deliver their classic product into the mouths of Australian eaters. They know they could maximise profit and efficiency by sourcing from China, but they believe in creating jobs and work partnerships and giving back to the regional communities that have inspired them.
The division of labour between the two founders is a match made in heaven. Regina’s contribution can be described as creative direction and product development, not unlike Aesop’s Dennis Paphitis. Regina develops the overarching food concept and has the final say over the flavours that go into each product. She is also the site supervisor at the markets and can often be found at the till, chatting up customers of all stripes, charming them into repeat business. James, a qualified chef, is in charge of food production in Hoy Pinoy and their other foodpreneur ventures. For Hoy Pinoy, his co-chef is Filipino; together, they bring Regina’s creative vision to life.
As it turns out, their having had children in their late adolescence worked in their favour. Their boys are practically grown up and the couple is still in their 30’s, brimming with energy, with barely a strand of white hair in sight. The unconditional support of the in-laws, especially when the kids were little, allowed them to pursue their dreams. James calls Regina’s mum “Mama” and speaks Tagalog, much to the amusement of non-Tagalog-speaking onlookers at stuffy gatherings. The young James came of age immersed in Filipino hospitality, where he was kept warm, well-fed, and never alone for long – a hospitality that is evident at Hoy Pinoy pop-up stalls. Raising children whilst young was rough, but in a culture that regards children (anak) and grandchildren (apo) as blessings from God, Regina and James had all the help they needed. So even though they did not travel or party in their twenties like their peers, their hard work has meant that they are now able to get paid for doing so.
At 37 and 36, Regina and James are hardly done. Future plans for Hoy Pinoy include Filipino dessert favourites such as ube tart(purple yam), bibingka and puto’t kutsinta (varieties of rice cakes). They have been experimenting with beverage possibilities based on calamansi (indigenous Philippine lime) and lambanog (coconut liquor), perhaps even salabat (hot ginger tea). They are also keen to fulfill their initial dream of starting a Hoy Pinoy sit-down restaurant, but they are still on the lookout for the right location and the right time. There would have to be space for the grill, as they have every intention of maintaining the ethos of cooking everything fresh on site, serving the food as it was always meant to be served. The restaurant would have to be at the heart of the city, easy for anyone to get to, not a secret kept close to the chest by Filipino cooks targeting a primarily local Filipino consumer base. Hoy Pinoy was always meant to be authentic Filipino food offered with dignity and pride on the global stage, an effort to genuinely connect with diasporic Filipinos, nostalgic former visitors to the Philippines, as well as complete newbies to Filipino cuisine. Filipino food researcher Doreen Fernandez once lamented the dearth of quality restaurants serving Filipino cuisine for people who wished to dine out, a sad fact observable not only in the Philippines but even in countries with massive Filipino diasporic communities like America and Australia; too often, Filipinos will insist that the only way to get good Filipino food is to snag an invitation into a Filipino home. Regina and James believe that Filipino cuisine can hold its own alongside the great culinary traditions of the world, and it is high time for Filipino food to announce itself, loudly and proudly, through its bold smells, unique flavours, and unapologetic indebtedness to its regional city roots.
Hoy Pinoy began as a mobile street food stall presenting at Australian markets and catered events beginning August 2013. Aside from media mentions, they advertise only through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. As of this writing, the pop-up Hoy Pinoy barbecue stand has attracted 3,842 Facebook followers, not far behind Jeepney New York’s 5,537, and more than Purple Yam Brooklyn‘s 3,098. You can find them in Melbourne this winter at the Luna 1878 Winter Market at the Queen Victoria Market in the Melbourne CBD. Follow them on Facebook for updates regarding their upcoming Brisbane and Adelaide appearances.
All photos courtesy of Hoy Pinoy. Author’s headshot courtesy of Mimo Mukii
For further recent reading on Filipino food outside the Philippines, see:
How American eaters are courting Filipino palates – and vice versa
At long last, Filipino food arrives – what took it so long?