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Victory in the Pacific 

Don't miss Ian Merryman's edgy take on Philippine cuisine at Tiny Victory.

click to enlarge The pork sisig features crispy pig's head, onsen egg, Thai chilies and calamansi

Scott Elmquist

The pork sisig features crispy pig's head, onsen egg, Thai chilies and calamansi

Ian Merryman’s food is exceptional, and not just because his Philippine-inspired food is an earthy and provocative surprise among Richmond’s eateries. His gift for understanding ingredients and flavor combinations shines in unexpected and delightful ways. But overall, this diamond is still a little rough.

To enjoy a meal at Tiny Victory, be prepared for a trip through the gritty city. On every visit to this busy corner of Broad Street we passed by people sitting and standing in the small adjacent free parking lot or by the restaurant door, some asking us for money. Once inside, however, we were welcomed with friendly smiles.

The front-of-house vibe is edgy and idiosyncratic, with kitschy touches like Tiki glasses and a “girls, girls, girls” neon sign behind the bar. The hot pink menus and vibrant tiger mural hint at a lively and creative experience.

Tiny Victory features Philippine ingredients and terms that will be new to many diners, like inasal, sisig, liempo, bibingka and kinilaw. Knowing Merryman’s food from his Jackdaw pop-ups, I trusted it enough to order blindly, but I would have appreciated a friendly offer to explain any terms, or simply to ask if we had any questions about the menu.

Merryman has taken some public criticism for choosing to cook a cuisine that isn’t part of his ancestry, but that seems unfair to lay on a chef who throws such heart and soul into the work. Clearly he is cooking with love, experimenting almost daily with new ingredients, and offering Richmond a glimpse into a world of sometimes unexpected flavor combinations.

Fortunately, the dishes are also described by ingredients, so it’s not too difficult to make good choices. Starters cost from $9 to $15, with mains priced around $24 - $27.

Sisig turned out to be pork, in this case tender bits of roasted, braised and crisped pig’s head flavored with lemony calamansi citrus. The sizzling pork was flanked by perfectly cooked rice with scallion and bits of fried garlic, topped with a soft-cooked egg. Citrus and roast pork may not be a common combination, but the fruity acid cut the rich meat in a delightful flavor explosion. I doubt Merryman will ever be able to take this dish off the menu.

The purple radish starter was a little village of spiky roasted radishes bathed in a roasted garlic and pineapple sauce. It would have been heightened by a pinch more acid or salt, but the creative presentation almost made up for that.

On one particular evening dining in, we enjoyed a giant bowl of off-menu arroz caldo soup, a hearty broth thickened by broken rice and savory toppings. The kesong puti dumplings were equally rich and satisfying — soft pulled pork with gnocchi-style dumplings flavored by fermented chili and thai basil, topped with a soft-cooked egg.

Another night we ordered rockfish that was eclipsed by a side of caramelized purple yam, or ube. This waxy root vegetable isn’t among my favorites, but these had crunchy caramelized cut surfaces that tasted as if they had been dipped in sugar melted to the perfect hard-crack stage.

There is not much heat in this cuisine, only the occasional chili. The food tends more toward a savory and sweet interplay of flavors, with delightfully sour notes from ingredients like calamansi and tamarind. Merryman goes all in on garlic, but in a gentler way than Italian or some Chinese cuisines. His garlic is fermented, roasted, fried, caramelized or crispy. There is nothing sharp about it.

The drink situation at Tiny Victory is heavy on rum, punctuated by savory elements like chili-tinged fish sauce, herb-infused syrups and flavored teas. The wine list is minimal, but no worries because beer is a better match for this food. Bottled and draft selections offered a good variety, including a few local options from the Veil.

Merryman plans to host the occasional kamayan dinner at Tiny Victory. Keep an eye out for these events, which are similar to a clambakes or crab boils in that guests eat shared meals with their hands. There is joy and camaraderie in pulling apart a whole chicken or fish while figuring out how to scoop up rice and sauce with your fingers.

Tiny Victory is quirky and sometimes uneven, including some staff turnover that has affected the service. But Merryman is completely committed to sharing his unique version of Philippine flavor combinations. Brave the gritty city to enjoy this fresh new accent.

Tiny Victory

506 W. Broad St.

658-0757

Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays 5:30 p.m. - midnight

Fridays, Saturdays 5:30 p.m. - 2 a.m.

Sunday 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.

tinyvictory804.com

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