Conventional wisdom dictates that the measure of a restaurant featuring another country’s cuisine is how many natives dine there. On a visit to Ta Fanocho, there were 22 Chamorros — the name of Guam’s indigenous people — from Virginia Beach crowded into this 16-seat Guamanian restaurant.
Two weeks later, the territory’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Madeleine Bordallo, comes down to eat, bringing with her a posse of Washington and Northern Virginia friends with roots in Guam.
Why such fuss over a Guamanian restaurant? Because of its relative scarcity, say owners Javonya Mendiola and her Chamorro chef husband, Brian. The couple’s research turned up three in California and one each in Texas and Manhattan, which sent them on a path to create their own on Richmond’s North Side at Brook Run Shopping Center.
The unfussy space caters to both dine-in and take-away crowds with a bit of a lesson on the walls to help locals get up to speed on Guam — two maps, the flag, photos — plus reliably ’80s pop music and a fast-casual setup. Chamorro culture, the Mendiolas say, is a stew pot of traditions brought to the island by Americans, Filipinos and Mexicans, with its food reflecting two centuries of Spanish colonialism.
On our first visit, the gregarious Hanover County-born Javonya Mendiola greets us with the warmth of a neighborhood hostess and offers to take us on a tour of the premade dishes behind the counter, all of which are offered with or without sides. Order at the counter and she’ll deliver your meal to the table with a high-wattage smile.
It’s her history that shows up in traditional mac ’n’ cheese and potato salad — both creamy and rich enough to win approval from any Southern grandmother — and green bean casserole, with or without fried onions, depending on your preference. She’ll ask to find out. The rest of the offerings hew to Guam’s islander cuisine with an abundance of spice and citrus notes.
Those bright flavors shine in chicken estufao ($9), boneless chicken pieces marinated in citrus and simmered with onions, an easy entry point to the cuisine. But if heat’s your thing and you want a quintessential Guamanian dish, go directly to cold chicken kelaguen ($4) made from hand-shredded chicken sparked by hot peppers and combined with fresh coconut, green onions and fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
Much like egg rolls, lumpia ($3) are hand-held, island-style starters, stuffed with ground beef, vegetables and deep-fried for easy dipping in a sweet citrus sauce. Vegetable-studded red rice ($3), a Chamorro staple, takes it color from annatto and makes a pleasing base for any of the main dishes, while fried ($2.50) and steamed rice ($2) are available for the less adventurous.
Keep your fingers crossed that oxtails ($14) are perfuming the restaurant when you stop by, because the deeply savory flavor created by slow-roasting the meat and bones with cabbage and onions makes for outstanding rib-sticking eating. To strike gold again, you’ll need to visit on the weekend — the only time barbecued pork spareribs ($7) show up on the specials board — and bring some patience with you. But the 20- to 30-minute wait is a worthwhile investment that your taste buds will thank you for as you suck the bones for every last morsel of meat.
Shot through with spice and putting your tongue on full alert, juicy pork-rib tips ($8) show up as specials semiregularly, just as satisfying on my third visit as the first. But not every native dish makes us swoon. Bistek, essentially beef marinated in sauce and onions, is the wallflower at an otherwise tasty Guamanian party, the meat dry and forgettable.
A bumper sticker on the register, a gift from a Chamorro customer, reads, “Got finadene?” That’s the name of a traditional condiment made from soy sauce, lemon juice, spicy peppers and green onions that gives a kick to practically any dish that it’s used on, whether beef, chicken or pork, depending on your nerve and tolerance for heat. Start slow, but acclimation is well worth it.
Ta fanocho means “let’s eat” in Chamorro, and that’s exactly what you should be doing at the only Guamanian restaurant between here and Broadway. If the territory’s congresswoman thinks it’s worth a drive, chances are she knows what’s up. And it’s a fairly safe bet that you haven’t gotten to Guam yet. S
Wednesdays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sundays 1:30 p.m.-8 p.m.
5650 Brook Road