Tita! Tita! brings the flavors of Manila to Tucson

off the eatin' path

The idea of street food is a very different concept across the globe. Here in the states, a quick bite from a cart or truck might mean a sandwich, dog, or burrito the size of a car battery. If you happen to find yourself in Asian terrains and are fortunate enough to come across their version of street food, you’ll be whittled back a tad to find their portions are far more forgiving.

Barbecue Skewers (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Barbecue Skewers (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Instead of snacks demanding wide hand holds and unhinging your jaw, most Asian street food is just a quick bite; a skewer of meat, a tightly formed rice ball, a puff of crab, or a bite of bread. Sometimes, insects and critters we deem “call the exterminator” worthy are available — lightly seasoned, waiting for you to try out. That, in its essence, is the actual idea of street food.

We do have street tacos here in Tucson. Those two-biter options whet any appetite for a quick pick-me-up, along with sliders, onigiri, and the occasional meatball. With the help of Midwest transplants via Los Angeles, Philip Rieff and Cody Webster, Tucson can now add lumpia and Filipino barbecue skewers to our street food roster.

Philip Rieff and Cody Webster of Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Philip Rieff and Cody Webster of Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Tita! Tita! has only been in operation for a few short weeks but the reception to the food Rieff ate as a child while growing up in Manila has been more than appreciative.

“The response has been exhilarating, wild, and exciting,” said Rieff. “A lot of people ask what lumpia is and when they have a taste, they can’t stop eating it. We’d get responses like, ‘I’ve never had lumpia before but now I need this in my life!’ Everyone in the community has been so kind, welcoming, and supportive.”

Lumpia at Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Lumpia at Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Lumpia is basically a deep-fried spring roll indigenous to Indonesia and the Philippines. The wrapper is paper thin and the fillings can literally be anything. Rieff and Webster have three delicious choices: pork, chicken, and a vegan option stuffed with cabbage.

All of Tita! Tita!’s lumpia are served with a tangy dipping sauce and topped with ginger, carrots, and fresh scallions.

Rieff was born in Manila but raised in New Mexico where he later received his degree in nursing. That degree landed him a job with Alinea Health in St. Paul, Minnesota as a neuroscience intensive care unit nurse. A little over two years later, he met Webster in Minneapolis.

Philip Rieff and Cody Webster of Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Cody Webster and Philip Rieff of Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

“I grew up in western Wisconsin in a tiny town with a lot of cows,” said Webster. “The town was less than 500 people and in classic Wisconsin fashion, it had three bars, a post office, a bank, and a church. I was itching to get out so when I graduated high school I moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota. I served throughout college and decided to press pause on my graduate program to do restaurants full time.”

Webster was used to the brutal Midwest winters but Rieff, hailing from Manila and raised in New Mexico, was so not. In the wake of the events of 2020, they moved to the sunny shores of Los Angeles, a place where they would call home for only a short while. The heavy truth of endless freeways, unattainable property costs, and two small-town boys living in that kind of jarring expanse proved to be too much.

Webster visited Tucson in 2014 and really liked it. In 2021, they decided to stay at Hotel McCoy to see if our desert hamlet would be a good fit. It totally was.

So, in July 2022 — yes, during the searing Sonoran Desert summer — the two found a place in the garden district and began to formulate a plan to go into business for themselves.

It was fond memories of Rieff’s grandmother and his tita (his auntie) that set things in motion.

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

“I was working as a nurse in a COVID intensive care unit and as the cases grew in number and the care we were providing became increasingly complex, so did my and my coworkers’ stress levels. We all needed an outlet. My outlet was food,” said Rieff. “Remembering these recipes have definitely been a challenge but therapeutic. If I was unsure about a recipe, I would chat with my grandma through Facetime asking her ‘Hey! Do you remember when we made…?’ about a specific dish.”

Tofu Tots at Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Tofu Tots at Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

“I shared these dishes with my friends, putting my own twists while keeping well-known attributes about the dish. Our friends loved these dishes that I grew up with and suggested several times we should maybe set up a business at some point, selling Filipino food, which is when Cody’s skill sets in the restaurant industry came in.”

Let’s all give a big round of appreciative applause to Rieff’s grandma and auntie, or tita, the inspiration for not just the cuisine but the name of Tita! Tita! The few things that the food stand offers are pinakamagaling.

Tucson is known for its chimichangas, even mini-chimis, and of course, the rolled taco but now we will be heralded for the lumpia. Both meat and the vegan-style lumpia from Tita! Tita! rules, and eating them alongside others at the farmer’s market who have never eaten or heard of a lumpia was pure joy.

As said earlier, none of us could stop eating them, and the resounding “yums” after that first, second, and even last bite was contagious.

Lumpia at Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Lumpia at Tita! Tita! (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Now, the pork shoulders and chicken thighs used for their barbecue skewers have been marinated in 7-Up — an old-school Manila technique. It just breaks down the meats and adds a bit of sweetness, tenderizing them before they get brushed with a definitive Filipino accented sauce.

Fall off the bone? No, it’s fall of the stick. It’s gorgeous nibble after gorgeous nibble.

Barbecue Skewers (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Barbecue Skewers (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Tita! Tita! also provides catering, offering up platters of pancit (a traditional noodle dish of the Philippines), adobo ribs, and, of course, the addictive lumpia to name a few.

You can usually find Rieff and Webster at the Rillito Farmers Market on Sunday but they are starting to do various pop-ups and events. Plus, the duo is in the very early stages of conceptualizing a full brick-and-mortar, so be sure to follow them on social media to see where these Midwest boys are serving the Manila-inspired realness.

(Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Oh, and Rieff and Webster wanted me to be sure you read one last thing from them in this article before wrapping it up: “A big thank you! We are so thankful for all the love and support we’ve received from the community. Shout out to Tucson!”

You gotta love these guys and their food as well.

For more information, visit titatitaus.com and follow Tita! Tita! on Instagram.

It was a Sonoran hot dog that made Mark switch from music journalism to food writing when he moved to Tucson from San Francisco in 2006. He hasn’t been the same since.

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