When brothers Butch and Edgar Gumban decided to open a grocery store catering to fellow Filipinos living in Memphis, they named it after their mother, Veronica. After tasting the egg rolls Edgar calls his mother's specialty, it's easy to see why.
Veronica's lumpia are longer and thinner than what you might think of as a typical egg roll, and Edgar jovially describes the contents as "pork, carrots, onions ... and some other stuff that my mom puts in them."
That "other stuff" is the magical quality to be discovered in the food — the fragrant and nuanced kick of flavor you'll find across the menu. It's a much milder kick than the spicier tendencies of other Asian cuisines. In the Filipino kitchen, subtlety and refined flavors prevail.
Since 1998, when the Gumban brothers opened their grocery in a small garage, VGM (the shortened version of Veronica's General Merchandise) has come a long way. They moved from a smaller space in the Raleigh-LaGrange Rd. area to Macon Square in 2005, expanding their selection of goods and opening the restaurant, which offers a variety of hot dishes all day from Tuesday to Sunday.
VGM is the quintessential family-run business: Edgar's wife Emma runs the checkout counter and serves the food that Veronica and other family members cook in the kitchen. Their customers come from as far as Mississippi, Arkansas, and East Tennessee to stock up on some of the only Filipino goods in the Mid-South.
The products that fill the shelves on the grocery side of VGM reflect the rich cultural diversity of the Philippines — the country was occupied by Spain for more than 300 years, and a large percentage of the country's population is of Spanish origin, along with descendants of Chinese, Japanese, and American immigrants.
These mixed origins have influenced the Filipino language and, of course, the cuisine. Many dishes use Filipino cooking processes but have names taken from the Spanish, like beef caldereta, short ribs stewed with potatoes and carrots in tomato sauce with liver spread, and pork or chicken in adobo, in which the meat is marinated and then cooked in a sauce containing vinegar and garlic. The results are very tender, mild dishes loaded with flavor, a perfect complement to steamed rice or the fragrant noodles the restaurant serves along with its main dishes.
The grocery selection is extensive, running the gamut from snacks like chips and crackers to staples like rice, noodles, canned fruits, and sauces. The goods come from a variety of places, including Japan and China along with the Philippines.
Edgar says their non-Filipino customers are often surprised to find something familiar on the shelves. Coolers full of imported fish line the back wall — Filipino cuisine is heavy with dishes that feature fish, the most alluring VGM offering being inihaw na bangus, or "fish pie," colorful vegetables baked into a half-skinned fish covered in spices.
VGM also serves Magnolia ice cream, a popular Filipino brand with flavors like ube (purple yam), mango, and mais-queso (corn and cheese). With a texture closer to sherbet and vibrant, inviting colors, the ice cream appears to be on the light and refreshing side, but its flavors are rich and complex. Other sweets include the juice of the calamondin, a citrusy fruit native to the Philippines — a sweet and sour drink reminiscent of lemonade but with that Filipino kick.
Butch and Edgar plan to run a barbecue booth during Memphis in May, which is celebrating Filipino culture this year through a series of lectures and exhibitions. Edgar is particularly looking forward to a Filipino dance and martial-arts performance at the Orpheum this week. While the attention drawn to the Philippines should be good for VGM's business, Edgar is mostly looking forward to spreading the word to people who love Filipino food but don't yet know that they can get it in town.
"There are people who don't know that we're still here, who visited our first store, and there are people who were in the military [stationed in the Philippines] and never heard of us," he says.
He's talking about supplying comfort to those for whom Filipino cuisine is familiar, but that comfort will extend to newcomers as well. If trying a new kind of food is what gets you into VGM, the warm environment the Gumban family has created will keep you coming back.
VGM, 6195 Macon (937-7798)