By Pete Dulin
Fans of Filipino cuisine know to seek out Norma Thayer and her family’s cooking at Manila Bay Express. The Filipino restaurant’s new location celebrated its grand opening on August 26th at 6305 Main Street in Grandview. Word of mouth is also driving first-time diners to the spot for broasted chicken, lumpia, and other specialties.
“Business has grown by word-of-mouth. We’re not corporate with a big advertising budget. We’re family-owned,” says Thayer, who operates the restaurant with her two daughters Adrianne Boyd and Maruth Thayer and son-in-law Brandon Boyd. “The Filipino Association of Greater Kansas City is a big group that helps spread the word. And we have more than 9,000 followers worldwide on our Facebook page.”
The family’s reputation and lineage of Filipino restaurants has drawn guests from a four-state area, including diners from Wichita, Kansas. The restaurant formerly operated as Valley Broasters in Grain Valley for a five-year span. Then the family moved the restaurant to Bannister Road, where it operated as Manila Bay Ihaw Ihaw for two years. “The Bannister location was too secluded,” says Thayer. “The Main Street location in Grandview has good visibility. We’re in the right place.”
Manila Bay Express’s 49-seat capacity provides half the seating space of its former spot. A smaller dining room made sense during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, the restaurant has adapted to deliver through Uber Eats and DoorDash, plus offer curbside pickup and carryout.
Dine-in guests may enjoy a cozy setting with bright colors painted on the wall. A semi-enclosed bahay kubo, a traditional Filipino hut made of bamboo, palm leaves, and grass, houses a table that seats four.
Diners will find traditional cuisine and Filipino dishes slightly adapted to Thayer’s taste. The Philippines, a Southeast Asian country composed of more than 7,600 islands, forged a complex, diverse body of dishes based on centuries of colonization. Spanish, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and American colonists each introduced ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques. For example, egg noodles and fried spring rolls, or lumpia, originated from Chinese culture. Filipinos adapted and created their evolving cuisine based on these influences, ingenuity, and natural resources available to them.
Food at Manila Bay Express mostly closely resembles dishes from Luzon, one of three major islands that each have specialty dishes. Thayer, who hails from Luzon, says the island is “the rice granary and culinary capital of the Philippines.” Other islands brought their seafood, vegetables, and mangos there to sell and trade.
Many island towns and villages once lacked electricity. Preservation methods, such as drying and salting meat and fish, or using acidic vinegars and citrus, enabled Filipinos to diversify their range of foodstuffs. Seafood, fresh produce, and rice are plentiful so fresh foods are a staple.
First-time guests and regulars at Manila Bay Express often order lumpia and adobo. Adobo, marinated seasoned pork or chicken, is simmered until tender and served with rice. Broasted chicken remains popular. Sisig traditionally uses typically-discarded cuts such as pig jowls, ears, and snout. Thayer’s adapted sisig blends roughly-chopped boiled pork belly and broasted chicken. The tender yet crispy meats are mixed with lime juice, seasonings, and other ingredients to yield irresistibly sweet, savory, and mildly sour and spicy flavors with each bite.
Guests can also order appetizers, rice bowls, silog breakfast plates with fried rice and fried eggs, pancit Canton (egg noodles) or rice noodles, seafood, and traditional desserts. Combination platters are available to sample an array of dishes.
Thayer, a former nurse for 34 years, once lived and worked in Saudi Arabia where she met her husband, who worked on a military mission at the time. She has run a Filipino restaurant in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Georgia after relocating to the U.S. in the late Eighties. After moving her family to Kansas City in 2003 and raising her children, Thayer’s family now brings the lively flavors of the Philippines to Grandview.