At Papa’s Kitchen in Jackson Heights, you will be greeted with a smile, a menu, and a book of karaoke songs. Co-owner Maribeth Roa has created an oasis for her regulars who come for the food, stay for the karaoke, and keep coming for the hospitality. We had the opportunity to sit down with Maribeth and chat about Filipino cuisine, culture, and her gratitude for her father, “Papa”.
First thing’s first – what should people order at Papa’s Kitchen?
On our menu, we have Salu Salo Sa Bilao, which is a family platter. Salu Salo Sa Bilao means “gathering”. You eat and gather with friends. So when there is a special event, people order Salu Salo Sa Bilao. On the platter we have different dishes, mainly Adobo. Adobo is the national dish of the Philippines. We also have the Crispy Pata, the Kare Kare, and Pancit. We want to slowly introduce the Filipino cuisine to non-Filipinos.
Did you and your brother, the chef of Papa’s Kitchen, grow up cooking in your home?
We actually did not cook. We always had someone cooking for us – we liked to go out and taste different kinds of dishes. Our father likes to experiment, so we grew up watching him experiment to make the food taste good. It’s more like a passion for cooking. Every time we cook, we cook with love and we cook with passion. It’s in our blood.
What inspired you to open a restaurant?
We opened the restaurant in October of 2012. It’s more like a tribute to my father, because he taught us how to cook. He became an inspiration to us. My father is an engineer by profession, but his passion is cooking.
He was retired and was getting bored at home, so we told him, “Oh, maybe we should find you something to do, you know, we will open a small restaurant.”
And then people started coming in, and they also started singing because Karaoke is one of the national pastimes in the Philippines. So from then on, it became a tiny little restaurant with Karaoke. And then after nine months of operation, we got featured in the New York Times. We were very happy, but shocked because we are very tiny. If you’ve seen the old place, it was only 16 seats.
It’s so incredible that you were able to expand into a larger space, yet you still have a great neighborhood feel.
It’s fun. At the end of the day, there is a feeling of camaraderie. You become friends with whoever is next to you, and then you exchange phone numbers and you become friends. We have many regulars – Adalberto & Kenneth for example. They always bring their friends, they sing, and whenever its Adalberto’s birthday, they order the big roast pork. All of his friends are there, and everyone kind of squeezes in and they eat with their hands, and then after they eat, they sing. Adalberto’s favorite is “Phantom of the Opera” and “Even Now” by Barry Manilow. Some people like to sing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, and they will imitate the way it was done on TV with Leonardo behind them.
Running a restaurant must be exhausting. What keeps you getting out of bed every day?
I am exhausted most of the time, but once I am at the restaurant, I feel like all of my pains, aches and stresses are gone; especially when people start singing or when people talk to you about the food. It’s rewarding when you see people come back and say, “Hey, I need to try this. You told me I have to try this, so now we are coming back.”
What keeps me going? My parents, my siblings, my work – everything. My life is very simple. I wake up, I do things, I go to work, I am happy. It doesn’t require a lot of things to make me happy. So just being alive, being healthy, helping people – it just makes me happy. That keeps me going. I pray every day, and when I wake up, I am still here. You know?
To hear more of Maribeth’s story, check out Season Two, Episode Five of the Open Belly podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
3707 83rd St, Jackson Heights, NY
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Images by Alyssa Broadus (@littlefixations) | Edited by Emily Neudorf & Kristen Reames