A clan behind the counter makes customers feel like family

At Oriental Mart in Pike Place Market, tourists converge to ask directions and purchase Seattle souvenirs. Locals drop in to grab ingredients for their Asian recipes and say hello to "Mom" — owner Mila Apostol, who has called the crowded confines of this small shop home for 30 years. Cigarettes and phone cards change hands frequently, and fragrant Filipino food draws lunchtime crowds that come for quick sustenance and stay for a big dose of family.

Fast, filling, nothing-fancy fare is served from a steam table daily by Mila's daughters, Leila Rosas and Joy Mori. Arrive early and you might watch the preparations of their house specialties, including chili beef, chicken adobo (see recipe on Page C 2) and pancit bihon — wok-tossed rice-noodles liberally laced with cabbage, carrot and onions.

It is easy to feel at home here, sitting at a counter enjoying the pleasures of a bowl of bony skin-on salmon soup (made with fresh fish from Pike Place Fish) and the greasy goodness of fried filets of milk fish (imported frozen from the Philippines).

But it is the unmistakable sense of being part of this extended family — if only for the time it takes to down a $5 meal — that is a large part of this Market fixture's magnetic draw.

"I first became interested in the Market after reading an article in the paper," says Mila. "It was about an old farmer who stayed here, working, for 40 or 50 years. He grew up in the Market and eventually retired here. It occurred to me that if someone could retire at a place he'd enjoyed his whole life, then that would be a place I'd want to work, a place I'd want to raise my children."

At 72, Mila insists she has no plans for retirement. From her constant perch behind the register at Oriental Mart, she tells stories of the "long-haired hippies" who worked nearby in the early days and how she came to look beyond their hair to appreciate their knowledge and work ethic. And she recalls the tight-knit families whose businesses once populated these stalls. "Back then the Market was a family community and I knew everyone. Now there are new tenants, new merchants, new buildings. You just don't get away from your business to meet people as much as you used to."

She may not know all her fellow vendors, but she credits them for keeping her business viable.

"The Market community is how we survive in the winter. The arts and crafts people come here to eat, they take food to go. Sometimes, when there's a long line, I tell the tourists, 'You're on vacation, right? Sorry, but I have to help these people first.' "

Cruise ships also help keep business afloat, and not because their passengers mine the Market for postcards and trinkets. Many of the ship's crews are Filipinos who flock here to socialize, to eat, or just to say hello.

"I would not exchange my working life with anything else," Mila says. "I love the people, my customers, the ethnic diversity. It's been an interesting place to work and raise kids. And they're all good kids. I'm proud of them."

Genesis of the market

A proud Filipina, Mila is the mother of six and grandmother of 10. She and her husband Manny opened Oriental Mart, an Asian grocery store, in 1973. Two years later their business expanded to include an adjacent stall, the House of Woks & Bowls. In the mid-'80s, Oriental Mart grew to encompass Oriental Kitchenette, where the scent of sautéed garlic punctuates the air in the Corner Market Building, across from the big Market clock.

In a cramped space hung with battered pots and pans, 45-year-old Rosas churns out Filipino home cooking with the help of her sister, 36-year-old Mori. Rosas works seven days a week, arriving shortly after 9 a.m. — if she hasn't stopped at Cash 'N Carry or the produce wholesalers on her way to work. If customers are shy a buck at lunch, "Auntie Lei" is not above taking an IOU. She's the big sister you wish you had: the one whose shoulder you'd run to cry on, and whose pocket you'd constantly pick. Rosas leaves the Market — if she's lucky — by 5 p.m., in time to get home to feed her kids dinner, help with homework and put them to bed.

"In junior high and high school we started coming here to work and I hated it. Now," Rosas says, nodding in her mother's direction, "she can't get rid of us."

Working this hard is something Rosas admits she couldn't do without her only sister and No. 1 sidekick, Mori, who is as adept at slinging chicken adobo as she is helping care for Rosas's two sons and her own three daughters — a job she relishes.

Brothers Milman, Lenuel, Manny, Jr. and Edward have all had a hand in the family business, but garner paychecks elsewhere, leaving their sisters to take over where their folks began.

"This is all we've ever known," says Mori, who began working the kitchen in earnest after she married. Working for family has its perks, she insists. "If I went somewhere else, I couldn't say to my boss, 'It's nice out. Can I leave and take the kids to the zoo?' Here I say, 'Hey, Mom! Can I take your grandchildren to the zoo?' " It works every time.

Everyone pitches in

Rosas rarely gets a break from her duties, though she looks forward to leaving the Market for several weeks each year: to run the family's food booth at the Evergreen State and Puyallup fairs. "When I'm gone the customers have to deal with Joy," she says, ribbing her sister, whom she refers to as "the mean one."

"You've heard of mom 'n' pop shops?" asks the mean one. "Well, we're a mom, pop and sisterhood."

These days "pop" is enjoying semi-retirement, spending most of the year in the Philippines (he's due back in June to work the busy summer season). And lest his daughters miss the company of their brothers, let it be known than the Apostol siblings — save Manny Jr., who lives a block from his parent's new condo in Pike Place Market — live within shouting distance in Renton.

This proximity makes their neighborhood a veritable family compound, complete with tag-team barbecues, built-in babysitters and, perhaps most importantly, understanding spouses.

"When you marry into our family, you marry the whole family," says Mila. "If you don't know how to live in that atmosphere, it would cause friction."

Living in the Market has its benefits, says Mila, as does working with her daughters.

"My grandchildren spend a lot of time here, especially on weekends," she says. "They see how I work. They see how their moms work, and they learn by example. It's an old philosophy, but it's one that works. It's what my father taught me."

Filipino roots

Mila grew up on the island of Iloilo as the oldest of seven children, the daughter of a butcher. "If school started at 8, my dad would wake me up at six to make deliveries," she says. Schooled by Baptist missionaries, she worked for them in high school after her father passed away. "I gave my mother every cent I made: 30 cents an hour. That was good money back then."

The Apostols met while studying at Far Eastern University in Manila, where Mila earned her MBA. After graduation they married, started a family, opened and operated a five-unit clothing and dry goods business and, in 1969, made the move to the United States. "At the time there was big talk about marshal law," Mila says. "As an economist I saw the situation was going from bad to worse. People like us were caught in the middle. We wanted to give our children a good education and we knew that the cheapest way to do that was to move here."

Living in Lynnwood and later, Renton, the Apostol children were taught to embrace their ethnic roots.

"Our parents never let us forget our heritage," says Mori, the fifth and last child to be born in the Philippines. "Food was always very important to us. How we grew up, how we ate, helped maintain that heritage. Mom and dad spoke to us in Tagalog — even when we'd answer in English. They'd take us to the Philippines, where we got to know our wealthy cousins and our poor cousins. There, we had maids. Here we are the maids!" she says, laughing as her sister slices vegetables and rinses pots.

Throughout the year, the Apostol family often gathers for birthdays, weddings and other celebrations, where they count many customers among their guests.

"We meet a lot of people here, from the famous to the homeless. These are our friends," Mori says. "Our mother taught us well: If you don't have family, what do you have?"

Oriental Mart/Oriental Kitchenette: 1506 Pike Place Market, Seattle; 206-622-8488 (open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)

Nancy Leson can be reached at 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.