Photo by Fred Sauceman
Aida Davison, Conchita Cartagena Limbaugh, and Conchita Lyon opened The Philippine Connection in May of 1988 on Knoxville's Magnolia Avenue.
Among the funnel cakes, corn dogs, and cotton candy sold every September at the Tennessee Valley Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, are lumpia.
They are a specialty of the Philippines.
Pacific Island cookery at a fall fair in the Volunteer State may, at first, seem out of place. But Knoxvillians’ love of lumpia is long-standing.
Lumpia have been sold down the street, at The Philippine Connection on Magnolia Avenue, for almost three decades.
They’re typically compared to egg rolls, but lumpia are longer and thinner. They’re pork-stuffed and redolent of garlic.
Beef’s an option, too. Aida Davison, Conchita Cartagena Limbaugh, and Conchita Lyon cleaned up what was once a dump of a building and opened The Philippine Connection in May of 1988.
Aida had been cooking since she was 6 years old, remembered her mother’s techniques from back home in the Philippines, and brought that knowledge to America in 1967, as an Air Force bride.
Carmelita Shelton, tiny and tobogganed, keeps three woks going all day long in a closet-sized corridor of a kitchen in the back of the restaurant.
On the shelf above, always within quick reach, are tall plastic containers of black peppercorns, various forms of garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce. Those ingredients represent the coming together of Chinese and Spanish cuisines, traditions that, through trade and colonization, form the foundation of Philippine cookery.
Factor in another influence, American take-out, and the result is a rarity in the Mountain South, a Philippine fast food joint.
Many East Tennesseans were first introduced to Philippine lumpia, adobos, and sautéed noodles during the 1982 World’s Fair, but after it closed in October of that year, they were left without a source for the sour and salty flavor combinations characteristic of this archipelago of 7,107 islands.
Situated near Chilhowee Park, where the Tennessee Valley Fair takes place, The Philippine Connection shares the glaring red and yellow exterior coloration common to many American fast food establishments.
There are a couple of tables for on-premises dining, but the business is primarily take-out, and the clientele is predominantly American.
When she first opened, Aida says customers specifically requested no garlic.
“Now that we’ve found that it’s good for your health, some of our customers demand extra, extra garlic,” she says.
Most of the wok-cooked creations at The Philippine Connection are available in small or large portions, with a choice of chicken, pork, beef, or shrimp, or all four, and there’s an all-vegetable option, too.
Small versions are plenty for hearty eaters, accompanied by plain white rice or Chinese-style fried rice and an egg roll.
If there is a national dish of the Philippines, it is adobo, a Spanish-influenced “stew” seasoned with the omnipresent vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and black pepper mixture.
The Philippine Connection sells more chicken adobo than any other meat choice.
“At home, I cook it with the bones, but here there’s no time — it’s all boneless meat,” says Aida.
Philippine cookery is also heavily dependent on noodles of various colors and textures. Headlining the menu at The Philippine Connection is pancit guisado, sautéed noodles.
“I do this country style, and it’s my mother’s original recipe from a region outside Manila,” says Aida, sporting a red sweatshirt with intertwined American and Philippine flags.
Prepared Cantonese style, the yellow-gold noodles soften in the wok after the meat and vegetables — broccoli, carrots, onions, cabbage — are cooked.
In all the adobo and noodle dishes, there’s a sufficient amount of meat, but the meat doesn’t play a dominant role in the cuisine.
Aida describes the 16-ounce tropical drink halo-halo as “like a milkshake or a piña colada, without the alcohol.”
It’s a cold blend of mung beans, evaporated milk, coconut gel, jackfruit, crushed ice, and shredded coconut.
The woks at The Philippine Connection stay full for 11-hour business days Monday through Saturday, and the ladies spooning up the carry-out orders go through truckloads of Styrofoam in a week’s time.
But being covered up with work is what drives them, as they easily shift between their native language of the Philippines and confident English, unperturbed as customers line up from the cash register out through the front door to take home tastes of the faraway islands.
The Philippine Connection 3225 East Magnolia Avenue Knoxville, Tennessee 865-522-5276 philippineconnection.com