Growing up in Norfolk, Fred Enriquez never imagined the countless hours spent with his mother and aunt in the kitchen of the family restaurant would inspire him to open a Philippine food joint of his own one day. The fact that Fred’s childhood best friend, Zack Brenner, is now one of his business partners in Richmond’s latest Philippine food endeavor is another testament to the culinary prowess of the family’s matriarch and the restaurant’s namesake: Auntie Ning.
“My inspiration has always been the women of my family – my grandma, mother and aunties,” Enriquez says. “I’ve always been around amazing cooks all my life. Almost all the recipes are my own interpretations of what I remember my family’s cooking to be.”
Auntie Ning’s third owner, Justin Shaw, met Enriquez thanks to his then housemate, Brenner, while on a beach trip to Hampton Roads. As the three became fast friends one topic of conversation continually arose: Why aren’t there any Philippine restaurants in Richmond? After bantering about the idea of opening their own joint, they uttered the famous last words: “How hard could it be?”
Auntie Ning’s began with a rented tent at a farmers market over two years ago and has quickly grown from there. “We were giving away a lot of lumpia to get people hooked, but we got so much business we were able to scale up our operation from a tent to a food trailer to an all-in-one food truck,” Shaw recalls.
Late last month the trio took the next step on the journey towards a full-fledged restaurant with a brick-and-mortar pop-up at Market on Meadow in the Fan. The push for a more permanent location was driven by a desire to expand the menu while still offering the freshest flavors possible.
“There’s a big difference in scalability between cooking all the food you want to sell and bringing it there versus being able to cook on-site for customers,” Shaw says. Decamping from Henrico County to set up in the city has also proven a boon to business. “Moving to the Fan drastically increases our reach because customers can just walk in and now we can access local delivery services that only serve the city like Chop Chop and Quickness.”
While the new venue at Market on Meadow has expanded its business, that doesn’t mean Auntie Ning’s has given up on its food truck. From Bryan Park to Carytown to the Veil, the three gentlemen put on a surprising number of food truck pop-ups in addition to their opening hours at the new Fan location, which are 4-9 p.m. every day but Tuesday. However, juggling the demands of two locations hasn’t meant any compromises on their food’s freshness or flavor.
Auntie Ning’s consistent top seller is the lechon kawali, a pillar of Philippine food culture featuring juicy slices of pork belly Enriquez slow-cooks for 24 hours before flash frying them so each piece comes out incredibly crispy. The lechon includes a garlic fried rice that packs a punch and, as with all the entrees on the menu, it comes with two lumpia. Those looking for an extra heft to their meal should order the breakfast bowl to add two over easy eggs to the dish.
Shaw’s current favorite and a new offering to the menu is the kalderata, a beef stew left to simmer overnight with tomatoes, bell peppers and potatoes. “It’s a very hearty meal and I’ve never seen it anywhere else in Richmond,” Shaw notes. “Given that there’s next to no Filipino food here, everything we offer is pretty much one of a kind in town.”
While some of the dishes use the exact same recipe handed down to Enriquez by his mother, Ning, others have offered him the opportunity to experiment and stretch the limits of traditional Philippine cuisine. “The one thing that is closest to my mom’s and aunt’s recipe is the beef lumpia,” Enriquez says. “The lechon and veggie lumpia are less traditional and more of my own design.”
Where will Auntie Ning’s boundary-pushing head chef take the restaurant’s menu next? It could be in a rather un-Philippine direction for a land known for pork’s near universal presence.
“As far as possible new recipes, I plan on creating more vegan dishes,” Enriquez says. “Veganism is very new to the Philippines, but I think it translates well. I think most Filipino dishes would be delicious if made vegan.”Auntie Ning’s