Faraway lands may offer culinary experiences worth more than the price of a plane ticket, but you don’t have to fly to the other side of the world to treat your palate. Tidewater offers cuisines as delicious as they are diverse, served in places where English is the second language, aromas are otherworldly and every bite tells a story.
So sit back, order the Korean kimchi or Laotian papaya salad, the fiery Sichuan tofu or Mexican mole, and listen to how those little treasures made their way to you.
by LORRAINE EATON photography by KEITH LANPHER
Som Bao Café | A place of honor (and spice)
She was only 3 at the time. Still, Baykham Phoutasen sensed tension in the air. Her father had vanished, and her mother forbade her and her five siblings to stray from their hut in Laos near the banks of the Mekong River.
After receiving a secret letter, her mother, Bao, began casting off possessions, including the family’s dog. Then one night Baykham was shaken from her sleep.
Terrified yet silent, she clung to her 10-year-old sister’s torso as the family sped west through the wilderness toward the Mekong River and Thailand border. Guerrillas loyal to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime followed close behind, looking to shoot anyone attempting to flee Laos.
Baykham, who goes by her American nickname, Penny, tells the saga calmly while tending to her family’s restaurant, the Som Bao Café, a Laotian eatery across from the Virginia Beach courthouse complex. There the music is soothing and kaffir and lemongrass perfume the air.
Baykham and her siblings opened the restaurant in 2011. It is named after their parents, whose portrait hangs over the register. Baykham runs the restaurant, and many family members staff it. It is an American success story, but one that would not have been possible without the courage of her parents.
As a child, Baykham couldn’t have known that night in Laos that the communist Khmer Rouge had already taken over neighboring Cambodia, instituting a harsh regime in which human rights, religion, money and private ownership were banned, along with communication with the outside world. Torture was common. Millions were slaughtered.
Baykham’s father, Somdee Phoutasen, had gone into hiding rather than enter a communist re-education camp. The secret letter was his, and it outlined plans for his family’s escape.
Other families didn’t survive that night, swept away by the Mekong current or captured or killed by communist soldiers. But the Phoutasen family did, and spent the next three years in a refugee camp in Thailand. There, Baykham’s older sister, Onlakhone, the one who carried her to safety, died of pneumonia.
The Phoutasen siblings could have immigrated to the United States separately, but Somdee insisted his family stay intact. Finally he found sponsors. Two Virginia Beach churches, St. Nicholas Catholic and St. Aidan’s Episcopal, teamed up to bring the Phoutasens to the U.S. in 1979.
Som Bao features authentic Laotian dishes made with recipes Baykham learned from her mother after the family immigrated and she, the eldest, shared the responsibilities of cooking and childcare.
True Laotian restaurants are rare. Although the food is similar to Thai, Laotian cooks use little oil and almost no sauces, and instead rely on broths that can take days to prepare and carefully layered seasonings such as lemongrass, a sort of Laotian ginger called galangal, aromatic leaves from the kaffir lime plant, and scorching hot chiles.
“For us,” Baykham says, “the hotter the better.”
When the café was but a dream, Baykham spent years hosting dinner parties to gauge just how much heat the American palate could take. Then she tweaked her mother’s recipes, toning them down so they were “a little more subtle to where everyone can enjoy it,” she says.
There’s thom khem, a staple in the Phoutasen family home that features slow-cooked pork, chicken or beef seasoned with kaffir and lemongrass, strafed with hard-boiled egg, all in a rich broth. There’s the Laotian papaya salad, thum mak hug, made with shredded green papaya, tiny shrimp and crunchy peanuts in a spicy sauce. And there are whole fishes steamed in banana leaves.
Baykham keeps most dishes in the realm of the mildly spicy but offers chili-based seasonings at the table. She also supplements the Laotian offerings with Thai standards such as curry and pad thai, to appeal to a broader clientele.
“It is important that I succeed in doing this,” Baykham says. “So many people depend on me.”
Two years after the restaurant opened, three Buddhist monks in saffron robes arrived to bless the restaurant. On a Sunday morning, about 50 members of the local Laotian community filed in, bearing their best dishes and woven baskets of money for the monks.
The afternoon came to a close as the crowd bowed their heads and pressed their hands together while the monks chanted a blessing in a three-part harmony. They called upon the gods to look down on the small café, to witness the good people and good deeds done there, and to bless it with fortune and luck.
After lunch, Bao summoned her children and grandchildren to her side, on the floor at the foot of the monks’ table. Then one of the monks dipped a sprig of reeds into ginger-scented holy water and meandered throughout the restaurant, flinging droplets onto the crowd, the walls, the pots, the pans, the sinks, doorways and mops, covering every surface with blessings of good luck and fortune.
During the ceremony, Baykham frequently glanced at her father. He seemed happy and at peace.
“I’m doing this all for him,” she said that day. “It gives me chills to think of what he has done for us.”
Som Bao Café, Courthouse Marketplace, 2476 Nimmo Parkway, Virginia Beach. 757.430.1066.
Judy’s Sichuan Cuisine | A little magic near Town Center
The book contained no recipes, and there was no reason for her obsession with it, but the text about the science and tradition of Sichuan cookery captivated the young woman.
Juan Sun pored over pages that detailed how since ancient times, Chinese Sichuan cooks ignited food by adding in fiery, fresh green and dried red chilies. They then quelled the burn with Sichuan peppercorns – called hua jiao – to achieve the cuisine’s classic “hot and numbing” equilibrium.
Sichuan is among the spiciest foods in the world, far different from the gamey, salty-sour flavors of Inner Mongolia, where Sun was raised. To her, it seemed like magic.
Her parents saw things otherwise. “You are not supposed to be reading that kind of book,” they shouted. “Read something good for you and your life.”
Today, Judy’s Sichuan Cuisine, Sun’s gorgeous 100-seat hideaway in the shadow of Town Center’s chain eateries, has achieved a cult following. She might not possess the accolades or name recognition of Peter Chang, but she does have a menu of authentic, addictive dishes that are dependably consistent and a charming tableside manner that she shares with most every guest.
“Maybe you try something different today,” you might overhear Sun suggest to a table of regulars as she coaxes them to stray from their usual order of, say, chicken in hot chili oil (steamed cubes of chilled meat in a pool of chili-flecked oil and peanuts). She might recommend instead the whole, pan-seared green chili peppers or, if she senses a particularly adventuresome palate, a hot-and-numbing plate of duck blood tofu with beef-and-tripe stew – a stunning dish with flavors so complex that you have to stop and wonder between bites.
Sun’s first chef attempted to steer her into a middle-of-the-road menu with Americanized versions of Chinese food on one side and authentic Sichuan on the other. She still bristles at the thought. That’s like putting carrots and peas into kung pao chicken, a classic Sichuan stir fry.
“It changes the dish. Not Sichuan,” she says, with a firm shake of her head.
Sun likes to question customers about their tolerance for spice, and then match them with dishes. Eventually, she moves regulars out of their comfort zone, up the Scoville scale and into the very soul of Sichuan-style cuisine with dishes such as dry-braised pork chitterlings or maybe even pickled chicken feet.
Her clientele speaks to her success. The restaurant attracts a diverse range of customers, from newbies to families speaking Chinese to local A-list chefs.
Sun, 56, herself is not a chef, although her own dumplings – right there on the menu – were something of a catalyst for her career and success as a restaurateur. By formal degree, she is a manager. She studied at China’s Inner Mongolia University, and after graduation landed a white-collar job in a steel factory. But when she traveled to the United States to visit friends, she liked the country so much that she never went back.
At the age of 38, Sun signed up for English lessons at the Adult Learning Center in Virginia Beach and at Old Dominion University. The language barrier limited her work options to Asian restaurants, like the No. 7 Chinese Fast Food Restaurant near ODU, where she did “anything except cooking.”
Intent on learning English, Sun interacted with as many customers as possible. “I learned everybody could be my teacher,” she says.
After a brief stint in New York, Sun moved back to Virginia Beach and landed a waitressing job at Sushi & West. She always liked to cook, especially dumplings. She found the process calming. One night, she brought a batch to share with her co-workers.
“They never eat dumplings like I make,” she says.
Impressed, the sushi chef suggested she open her own place someday and call it Judy’s Dumpling House. The idea charmed her, but it seemed impractical. Sun needed to make a living.
When Sushi & West closed, she got a job waitressing that morphed into management at Warrior’s Mongolian Grill. She had been working there for 10 years when the grill’s owner told her about a restaurant for sale behind the Kmart near Town Center. She even wrote a deposit check to help convince Sun the time was right.
In 2012, Sun opened Judy’s Sichuan Cuisine.
She still works seven days a week, and along with her chef, a native of Sichuan province, offers an authentic Sichuan experience.
In 2015, an online comment that the food was great but that the atmosphere was akin to a bus station prompted Sun to redecorate the dining room, something she had been planning to do for a while to reflect her own sense of Chinese style. No gold-and-red dragons and temples here. Instead, she chose a palette of soft blue, cream and orange with modern touches, such as the massive white chrysanthemums stenciled on the blue wall at the back of the restaurant.
She’s proud and happy to have her very own place. Turns out reading that Sichuan cookery book as a child was something good for her life. But in the future, she dreams of something different.
“When I’m stressed, I still like to make the dumpling,” she says. “Maybe someday when I retire, I have a very small spot. A little bar to drink saki and make food.
“Not to make money. To make a friend.”
Judy’s Sichuan Cuisine, Pembroke East Shoppes, 328 Constitution Drive, Virginia Beach.757.499.2810.
Jessy’s Taqueria | Crossing the Border to Ocean View
The dinner rush is just starting when a couple of out-of-towners intent on adventure claim one of a line of mismatched center booths at Jessy’s Taqueria in Ocean View.
A basket of thick tortilla chips, warm from the fryer, arrives in an instant with a dish of pico de gallo and a set of Constitution-sized menus. Then come pots of smoky, chipotle guacamole followed by something neither of the Mexican-food enthusiasts has ever encountered: pambazo, a traditional dish from Mexico City that’s built on a thick, oversized slices of telera, or white bread, smeared with shockingly red guajillo chili pepper sauce, grilled and stuffed with chorizo sausage and mashed potatoes.
Forget swamps of beans spreading into globs of bloated rice. This is authentic Mexican fare. The mostly Spanish-speaking clientele and exclusively Spanish-speaking cooks at Jessy’s Taqueria confirm that crossing the border into Mexico is as easy as driving to Ocean View.
The restaurant’s roots go back to Día Del Niño, or children’s day, in Mexico. On that day in 1990, Alejandro Romero packed up his family and immigrated to the United States from their home near Mexico City.
“That was the saddest day for us,” says Jorge Romero, whose family owns the popular restaurant. “We knew we were never going back.”
Uncles, aunts and cousins had already started a fledgling business in the mid-Atlantic selling Hispanic foods door-to-door wherever they could find pockets of immigrant families. At the time, Latino communities were already coalescing, but the Mexican tiendas so common today had not yet materialized.
The Romero family settled in Asheboro, in central North Carolina. Alejandro staked out that part of the state for his branch of the family operation. Each week, men in the Romero clan met at a Sanford warehouse, loaded their vans with the basics – tortillas, jalapenos, cilantro, avocados, cactus leaves, canned beans and chipotle, mesa flour, tapes, CDs and more – and fanned out across the region.
On Fridays after school, Jorge, who at 8 was the oldest of three brothers, climbed into the van with his father and headed to Mount Olive and the neighborhoods that were home to Latino workers at a nearby turkey processing plant. “I would go trailer to trailer, knocking on doors and saying, ‘Hey, we’re here for the weekend. Do you need any stuff?’ ” he says.
On Saturdays they headed out to the fields as workers returned to their barracks, and on Sundays they would sell their goods at a flea market.
“Every weekend, working, working, working,” Jorge says. “I complained once to my father and he said: ‘You’re the older one. You have to set a path for your brothers.’ ”
During those drives Alejandro Romero searched for places where they could settle. He finally chose Wilson, one of their route stops, where he noticed a huge concentration of field workers and no Hispanic grocery store.
The family moved there and opened a tienda. Later, Alejandro opened a taco shop with pool tables. He installed booths with slatted seats and turquoise-and-black upholstered backs. Later, he opened another taco shop, this one with twin soccer fields out back.
“He’d let them come and use the fields for free because he knew they were going to get tacos at some point,” Jorge says.
Then, in 2001, Jorge’s mother died. Six weeks later, Jorge left for North Carolina State University. Only weeks after that, terrorists attacked, on Sept. 11.
“Everything combined was a blow to my father,” Jorge says. “All three businesses went under, little by little.”
With his family nearing homelessness, Alejandro took a cousin’s advice and packed up the turquoise-and-black booths, a range exhaust hood and whatever stock was left and moved to Norfolk. He signed a lease on a small storefront on East Ocean View Avenue next to a chain pizza place, and opened a tienda.
But, always ambitious, Alejandro left room to someday open an eatery. “My dad,” Jorge says, shaking his head. “Always planning.”
To cultivate a customer base for the future restaurant, Alejandro rose at 4 a.m., and started simmering massive pots of pork in lard and seasoning the mix with cumin, chili and garlic. Heaped onto corn tortillas, it provided a filling meal for Latino workers on their lunch break. Word spread quickly.
Meanwhile, an aversion to peddling, developed from years of hard work, steered Jorge toward a chemical engineering major. He later switched to business management. By the time he graduated in 2006, his father had added a bakery and butcher shop to the tienda. The last piece fell into place when Alejandro pulled the old booths out of storage and opened the taqueria.
“How he opened up the business is beyond me, how he did that all himself,” Jorge says. “He was always there. He never had time to learn English.”
Today, Jessy’s, named for Jorge’s sister, is thriving with a second, more upscale location in Ghent.
Alejandro has returned to Mexico. Jorge now stands at the helm of the family business, and his uncle, Fortunato Romero, is his right-hand man. His fiancée, Celia Martinez, oversees the Ghent location. Jorge’s sister, Jessy Herrera, manages the market with the help of stepsister Diana Vargas. Brother Victor Romero and his aunt, Martha Romero, work magic in the kitchen turning out award-winning guacamole, tacos and authentic Mexican mole.
The new location seems fancy, with soaring brick walls and windows, bartenders in vests and ties, and shell chandeliers. But at the old place in Ocean View, a row of those original booths remain. Although Jorge and Victor reupholstered them in black and red, they’re really the soul of the place.
Ask to sit there. Even though they’re right in front of the register, they’re the best seats in the house.
Jessy’s Taqueria, 3201 East Ocean View Avenue, Norfolk. 757.531.0033.
Bilu’s | A Savory Treasure
In Latin American kitchens, superstitions swirl above the stockpots and pans of tamales.
Down in South America, cooks won’t use knives to stir or taste because they’re symbols of strife. They sprinkle salt in the shape of a cross into simmering pots of sopa and sauce tamales. And they shoo from the kitchen people who don’t possess the buen ojo – the good eye. In Virginia Beach, Biludis “Bilu” Brito shoos people from the immaculate kitchen of her Colombian restaurant. But not because of superstition.
“Las manos de las otras personas pueden echarlo a perder,” she says.
Translation: “The hands of the other people could ruin it.”
It’s 8:30 a.m. and Bilu (pronounced bee-LEW) has just opened the doors at Bilu’s Restaurant and Bakery. Behind the register, already lit, is an inferno in the rotisserie oven, soon to be tamped down and loaded with skewered, seasoned chickens. She has chopped yucca and potatoes for the Wednesday sopa special, hen soup, and her son, Eimar, has pulled from the oven a batch of pandebono, perfectly round, slightly sweet, rolls made with yucca flour and a core of mild white cheese.
Warm from the oven, this Colombian riff on a grilled cheese is reason enough to scout out the restaurant, which anchors a mostly empty shopping center on Newtown Road. Entering Bilu’s is like finding a little corner of Colombia at the Norfolk-Virginia Beach border.
At the counter, Luis Casal, a native Ecuadorean, orders a taste of home: bandeja paisa, an immense platter of red beans, fried egg, chicharrón (a rustic, fried bacon), rice and arepas, Colombia’s iconic corn cakes.
“I love this place more than any I have found,” he says between bites. “Five stars.”
The cook doesn’t hear the compliment. She’s busy in her kitchen, her hair bound in a colorful scarf, her white apron somehow remaining spotless.
A native of La Guajira, in the north of Colombia, Bilu grew up eating regional favorites – turtles, goat, rabbit, armadillo and guartinaja (essentially a Latin American guinea pig). Her grandparents owned a small shop. She persuaded them to sell her things on credit, and made candy to sell at school to pay the bill.
“Then I just started to love the kitchen,” she says through an interpreter. “For me, it’s heaven.”
At 18, Bilu opened her first restaurant and stayed fiercely loyal to the flavors of home. Later, she moved to Bogota, Colombia’s capital, attended cooking school and worked in a corporate kitchen where the staff sometimes turned out 1,000 lunches a day.
Then came marriage. Then three children. Then tragedy, when her husband was killed.
“After my husband died, life was not easy and that’s why I came to this country,” she says. “I decided to start a new life in America. For my kids, a better future.”
Bilu worked in Latin kitchens on Long Island and for five years as a chef at a Colombian restaurant in Queens. There, she made a connection that eventually brought her to Virginia Beach and El Desorden, a Colombian restaurant just a quarter mile from her place.
“It’s very …” – she pauses to find the right word – “It’s tranquilo. You breathe a different air here.”
Three years ago, after 35 years in the kitchen, she decided to go solo and opened a scratch bakery, and then moved down the street to open a restaurant and added a bakery. Now, spotless glass cases line one side of her bright, shiny eatery, with its bamboo bar and music that drifts from spirituals to salsa to merengue.
The cuisine is authentic Colombian. And it might come as a surprise to Americans that the dishes are savory rather than spicy, and the portions are hearty. First-timers might consider starting with fritanga para dos, an appetizer platter of chicken, beef, two types of sausages and fried yucca that’s more than enough for two.
Bilu’s menu, printed in Spanish and English, offers tamales, goat stewed in coconut, ceviche, skirt steak, and, of course, the arepas, thick corn cakes that are an iconic Colombian accompaniment.Pressed to choose a signature dish, Bilu says it’s between her
cazuela de marisco, a seafood stew served in a stone pot nestled in a wicker basket, and her paella, a laborious seafood and rice dish that’s best ordered hours in advance.
If there’s a drawback it’s the wait times that may test the patience of Type A American eaters.
But for good reason.
“That’s because I don’t let anyone prepare it except me!”
Bilu’s Restaurant and Bakery, 544 Newtown Road, Virginia Beach. 757.499.1027 or 757.499.1056.