One global story made local: Bomb Pinoy, Little Manila + Chattanooga's Filipino Community

This is a story of community, 80-hour work weeks, distinctive brooms and "Asian soul food."

One global story made local: Bomb Pinoy, Little Manila + Chattanooga's Filipino Community
Jessica Villanueva, Aaron Seaman, Bomb Pinoy, Broad St., Chattanooga, Tennessee.

While other Asian cuisines have found success in Chattanooga, Filipino food and culture are lesser known. But a few local Pinoys are changing that with food trucks and grocery stores aiming to serve all Chattanoogans.

"Building relationships with the customers is why we do it."

  • Note our readers: This story began when photographer and filmmaker Julie Ellison drove by Jessica Villanueva and Aaron Seaman's Bomb Pinoy food truck on Broad Street. Interested (and a bit hungry), she spent a few days documenting their work. Then, the story led her to Little Manilla, a Filipino-centric grocery store in East Ridge, and its owner and devoted customers. Julie wrote and photographed this entire story.
  • Words and images by Julie Ellison
Aaron Seaman doles out rice while Jessica Villanueva runs the register at their Filipino food truck, Bomb Pinoy.

Ask Jessica Villanueva and Aaron Seaman to describe the Filipino food they offer at Bomb Pinoy and they'll give you three compelling words.

"Asian soul food," says Aaron.

Their Bomb Pinoy food truck – "Chattanooga's first Filipino food truck!" they proclaim – is parked outside Chattanooga Coffee Company; the couple serves a rotation of dishes that reflect what they call a "lower income method of cooking": chicken adobo, pork belly sisig, lumpia, pancit and street fries sprinkled with a magical cheese powder.

The dishes are quick to make, calorie-dense, and based around simple flavors: salt, pepper and sour.

Slinging tasty and inexpensive Filipino dishes at Bomb Pinoy on Broad Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Jessica and Aaron started Bomb Pinoy because they wanted to share Filipino food with their community. For Jessica – originally from the Philippines with a long resume in hospitality – it was a natural fit to start her own food business. She and her American husband, Aaron, decided a food truck was a good way to get the idea off the ground.

And the name?

"Bomb" is a complimentary adjective, as in: "Whoa, that lumpia is the bomb!"

And "Pinoy" is another word for a person of Filipino descent.

Thus, Bomb Pinoy.

Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon for the past 16 months, they've parked the little red-and-white trailer on Broad Street, developing their recipes, food prep practices and a loyal customer base along the way.

"We have a lot of regulars," Aaron says. "Some people come twice a day."

The sour flavor prevalent in Filipino food plays well with the fatty cuts of meat or dollop of mayo creating an addictive combo.

The sour taste mostly comes from the juice of tiny limes called calamansi, a specialty ingredient that they purchase from the Little Manila Oriental Store in East Ridge.

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Bert Gumapal opened Little Manila in 2007; in 2013, Elvie Smith and John Carreon joined him as business partners.

Little Manila, on South Moore Road, carries a variety of Asian products, but 90% of it comes from the Philippines. There's canned milkfish and banana sauce (or sweet ketchup), whole frozen fish and canned sardines in tomato sauce. An entire wall that's just noodles.

Flags from the U.S. and the Philippines hang over the register, where Carreon spends a few days every week.

In 1994, he left the Philippines for Chicago, where a job as a traveling physical therapist sent him all over Tennessee to fulfill healthcare needs in rural communities. Eventually, in 2001, he and his family decided to make the Scenic City their home: drawn to the mountains, still close enough to the ocean.

John Carreon holds up a frozen fish, caught fresh in the Philippines and available at the Little Manila Oriental Store in East Ridge, Tennessee.
Jessica Villanueva pulls hand-rolled lumpia, one of Bomb Pinoy's most popular dishes, out of the fryer on Broad Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Over the past decade, Carreon has witnessed the Asian community of Chattanooga grow. He estimates a two-to-three-fold increase in the number of Pinoys in the region in the last 10 years.

Carreon also points out that some of those people who emigrate from the Philippines are actually Caucasian, not Asian. The U.S. military has multiple bases in the archipelago, meaning thousands of American kids grow up living as Filipinos.

A frequent customer of Little Manila, Margie Workman lived in the Philippines until she was 19. Her father was in the Air Force, and then both her parents became missionaries. In 1991, a volcano close to the military base erupted, causing massive destruction in the area. A teenage Maggie was forced to flee to the U.S., where her parents were already living.

Her first job in the States was working as a waitress at Cracker Barrel, where she had to sweep the floor every night.

She struggled to complete the straightforward task because she was used to a Filipino broom, which has a shorter handle and is meant to be operated with one hand. She brought her own broom from home for a few weeks before eventually learning the American two-handed technique.

"It was a major culture shock," she says. "I wanted to go back, but my parents were scared."

Today, Margie lives in Cleveland and makes the drive to Little Manila when she wants to feel connected to her roots. Being surrounded by Filipino culture feels like coming home for her, so she also attends events put on by the Filipino-American Association of Greater Chattanooga.

Jessica Villanueva and Aaron Seaman laugh with John Carreon at Little Manilla in East Ridge, Tennessee.

Jessica and Aaron say that direct support from people in the Chattanooga hospitality industry is the only way they were able to get the food truck up and running. Both work full-time jobs, and Aaron is in school studying computer science. The path has been riddled with challenges — 80-hour work weeks, failed recipes, stolen generators — but, as they enter 2024, they are excited to keep the dream alive.

"Building relationships with the customers is why we do it, so it doesn't feel like work so much," Aaron says. "Now we just have to make it another year!"

Their ultimate goal?

Transform Bomb Pinoy into a restaurant and work with other chefs in town to expand the menu with more creative dishes, as well as authentic Filipino recipes.

Now anyone can feel connected to the Philippines by visiting the Bomb Pinoy food truck on Broad Street, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Or visit Little Manila in East Ridge any day of the week.

Words and images by Julie Ellison. Visit

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