October 10th, 2023 – 2:00pm – Market on Meadow – 68F and Cloudy
Playlist: Garlic Hearts
Rain pattered on roofs, branches, and cobblestone alleys in the forever chill Museum District. Seriously, that whole place is a lo-fi album cover. Find some peace between the streets of Monument and Main. We kicked this series off with a pair of cultural kingpins giving the city their all. For the next two entries, we’re going to switch gears and break ground on some emerging Richmond cryptids.
For those who’ve worked in food service, let the clanging of pots and pans mixed with echoey acoustics give you all the triggering nostalgia, and shout out all my baristas making super specific custom orders on the daily. Also, to the patrons who were super lame to the staff for not having their order memorized on the second visit, we hope you enjoyed the decaf.
Anyways let’s get down to business: Mar Mar entered the Richmond foodie fray this year as an eclectic chili garlic crunch start-up. The founders of this enterprise are Mike and Liza Matz. Mike was born and raised in wild and wonderful West Virginia. Liza’s parents were physicians who migrated from the Philippines to God’s Country for work. The couple transplanted to DC after college, and then raised their three children in NOVA. Over time, they migrated a bit more south, and have been living in Richmond for 9 years now; it’s been a slow burn leading up to this debut.
This isn’t Liza’s first time around the kitchen though. Growing up with six siblings, she was quickly pulled from the roster to help with meals. “I was number 5 of 7 when my mom gave me some chicken to cut up and showed me how to prep ingredients,” Liza would recall as she conjured chili flakes, soy sauce, and oil into an overtly large pan. Flash forward, we find Mr. and Mrs. Matz experimenting with Jamaican peppers in a ghost kitchen for a next-level variant of the flagship flavor. When speaking about how they found themselves here, they couldn’t speak highly enough of the professional support surrounding their dream.
Liza has always habitually shared her chili garlic crunch with loved ones. “You know you should really start selling this stuff,” was repeat feedback she had gotten across the board. Pros in the food industry got a taste and started finding doors for the couple to open. Their ghost Kitchen resides in Market on Meadow, which is managed by Peter Riccobono, the owner of Polpetti. He’d swing by during the cook to have them try different ingredients he was testing out for his own menu. University labs analyzed the substance to provide data on maximizing shelf life. Her daughter Katie and a merry band of college alumni formed an interstellar brand team to add that next layer of product viability. The mark of belief in something is weighed by the volume of investment. Here, you see how the scales have tipped generously.
Since Team Mar Mar was formed, the guild has been dungeon-crawling through festivals, food trucks, and farmers markets to conquer kitchens across the city. The other theater in this saga comes from the modern Wild West we know as social media. Katie typically runs the day-to-day, but they’ll rotate Mar in to mix up personal presence on the account. “We call it Mar Mar Monday, just to post whatever I’m doing and show a different side of things.” All things considered, the Mar Mar party handles this undertaking seriously, but never at the cost of taking themselves too too seriously. Case in point of why I’m superfluously doubling words in some sentences (the Veil does it too, leave me alone).
Liza isn’t just putting her blue ribbon jars out in one of the densest foodie capitals this side of Appalachia, but she’s also donating her time to some of those very same entities — paying it forward is the secret ingredient. Before Mar Mar, Liza Matz spent her time volunteering at SEVATruckRVA based out of Hatch Kitchen. They are a local non-profit serving up healthy meals to those in need. “I just think it’s important that everyone can eat, you know?” She talked about how as her company grows, she would like to donate more to programs that center on reducing food insecurity. We can talk about Mar Mar till the cows cows come home, but at the end of the day, we’ve grown to look at production as much as the product. On the website’s banner is a slogan: “Food is Love”, and at the risk of sounding super kitschy, you see Liza has put her whole heart into this.
I don’t do product endorsements; my wife would serve up a special kind of hell if she saw me selling out. Sadly, if you’re looking for @mike_tok to become an influencer account, don’t hold your breath. I’m not here to sell you a bottle of chili oil. The Matz’s story practically writes itself, and I wanted to share how it shaped Mar Mar’s origins. One look at the label shows a name that’s quirky and fun to say, so let’s get into that. When asked where the name comes from, Liza casually responded that’s just what Katie calls her Mar for mom. But, Mike explained in Filipino culture, it’s a term of endearment to double someone’s name. Lo becomes Lo Lo, Mar becomes Mar Mar. Que sera, sera.
Chiming from a kitchen timer signaled our arrival to the moment of truth for this new experimental batch. The end result was something bolder, less sweet, but had greater depth. “This is it,” Mike concluded, and the team promptly moved onto the jarring stage. What remained in the pan afterwards was a concentrated residue of sediment that was affectionately dubbed “Sludge,” but not gross. More like Chemical X from Power Puff Girls (I guess that’s not much better), and a potency that would put the BP oil spill to shame. Then Katie said something about Marhi Marhi tuna, and I just wanted people to know that happened. Anyways, I was bestowed the lion’s share of the red gold and crowned the Sludge King. And I can testify when this hits the e-shelves, it’ll be a tender, loving roundhouse kick to the face.
The other half of this story comes from every young adult’s most cherished resource,- a home-cooked meal you didn’t have to make yourself. Liza and Mike graciously invited family, significant others, and members of the Mar Mar creative team to feast on a variety of dishes paired with their signature CGC. Full disclaimer: if you’re here for an in-depth food review, I’m not your guy for that either. Fried garlic smells good, and peppers are spicy; that’s about all I got. But, is Mar Mar good? No, it’s good good.
Liza’s culinary talents were on full display here, with the drive of an NBA athlete in playoff mode. Putting out a spread often reserved for royalty, distinguished celebrities, or corporate executives. Appetizers ranged from Mar Mar infused hummus and pita, Lumpia with sweet and sour mar mar, to Thai Chicken Meatballs. Here comes the plot twist: Liza moonlights as Auntie Ning’s lumpia-roller extraordinaire. And, if you haven’t experienced this gem, allow me to donate maximum hype. Anyone that knows me knows I’m a sucker for Asian food, and the appetizer sets the stage; fried veggie spring roll, egg roll, and of course, Lumpia. Auntie Ning’s take reigns supreme in RVA. Feel free to feel differently, but this export is worth the import.
Not one to show up empty-handed, I brought a delicacy from my homeland of scenic Youngstown, Ohio: hot peppers and oil. Served with toasted pita bread, we also of course added a splash of Mar Mar to it. The results exceeded expectations. The sweet salad peppers are kicked up by the chili crunch to offer a deeper spice. The texture gave an appreciated crunch to the peppers that naturally soften while cooking. I might be biased, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t going to recreate this at home.
There’s a seemingly endless range of ways to involve Mar Mar, and the members of the team are constantly researching new territory for the menu. The methodology varied by the practitioner, but the goal was the same: to find the best way to “Mar Mar”, yielded a wide range of outcomes. Some prefer this concoction on pizza or pasta, whilst others throw it on avocado toast. No FOMO for snacks either; pretzels and hummus join the fray. Ranch even received an honorable mention for wing dip. Dukes Mayo, seemingly on tour in Richmond this summer, reshared the collab known as ‘Marmaduke’. For me, throwing a couple spoonfuls in Shin Gold Ramen has been an easy go-to for those long days. Liza, though, is partial to some Mar Mar on a fried egg and white rice. I can imagine that base doing well with any number of factors, from a secondary protein to extra textures through veggies. The room had just as much good company as it did food.
Chris Matz is an interesting case alone at this table. Seemingly reserved when we met, but the family sang of his praises; a music connoisseur and versatile bass player who eventually honed his love for fashion. Legend has it that he ultimately wore his vintage thrift fit into a global fashion retailer and was hired on the spot. His social media backs up the maverick at heart. Case in point: using the platform to show that gendered clothes are almost entirely arbitrary. If you like how it looks, don’t let words stop you from rocking out. Why can’t dudes rock hair claws? No one’s given me the memo yet. This topic of discussion is something that I’m eager to cover in a future entry, and I wouldn’t be surprised if our threads cross again.
Chris’ wife Camille introduced herself with a handshake that could break Poseidon’s fingers. At the table, she showed me the delicate art of lettuce wraps. Filled with dollops of bulgogi, veggies, rice, ssamjang, and you guessed it, Mar Mar, the end result is a heckin’ good entree. The catch though is that it’s customary to eat this handheld in one bite. I set the difficulty level to beginner and tried half first. To be completely honest, I have no conception of how someone would fit a whole wrap in one fitting. All in all, it was the most delicious form of torture I’ve had the privilege of being immersed in. She also gave an appraisal of their newest elevated line of spicy Mar Mar. Rest assured, the final product will be one for the heat lovers. I can most definitely see escalating levels of this stuff, and I wouldn’t rule out Carolina Reaper at some point for you Scoville fiends out there.
Nico is another name to put on the radar; her disposition is equal parts imaginative and subdued. It’s as if she’s perhaps fallen through multiple, if not several, dimensions before finding herself at a bohemian dinner party. Bolstering her graphic design portfolio in the slumbering deserts of Santa Fe, she’s back in Richmond to work on her master’s at the VCU Brandcenter with a concentration in Experience Design. Don’t let the student title fool you; she’s full tilt in the creative game. Team Mar Mar lauds her prowess as the Brand Genius. Ingenuity comes with a healthy serving of kindness and that has been tremendously helpful. We sat at the table and talked about Penrose for a bit. We have a few tricks up our sleeve, so don’t be surprised when you see her name again.
Katie was my original contact for this project, and the talent doesn’t fall short here either. Whether it’s curating the playlist [that I’m really hoping you’re listening to right now], cultivating an eclectic social media presence with the help of her sister Gracie, or just coordinating minds on team Mar Mar, Katie’s sincerity and lightheartedness congeals this unit to operate in concert at the most enjoyable level. She also handles, and this is a direct quote, “‘making sure Queen Mar is properly hydrated and fueled when she’s doing her thang.” When she’s not divining the work flow of Mar, Katie adds some seasoning to fitness, as a coach at F45 Manchester. Bringing that same iconic heat to a different kind of kitchen, consider yourself notified.
Mike Matz would phase between reminiscing on the days when his kids weren’t so grown up, to his own career path and even registered an interest in getting back into guitar. We even got to reignite our strong mutual affinity for bourbon; four Roses Small Batch Select for those in the know *taps nose*. In this decade, Mike has the rings of a matured oak to show a different perspective but a heart that resonates with every generation. It’s evident with his kids, and in conversation, you see him still on his own adventure but still enjoying the company every step of the way.
Our wholesome banquet quickly morphed into an impromptu brand consultation meeting: We posted different marketing scenarios ranging from product testimonials, “How do you Mar?” to guerrilla campaigns (we are Mar Mar a la Guy Fawkes mask). Unique dishes from hours of hard work covered the table, but it was laughter from the bottom of the heart that filled the room; a crossroad that could overpower the persistent anxiety and existential dread of this godforsaken era. I think a lot of almost everything has been brought into question, and in the past few years, our collective consciousness has gone into overdrive. Everything from identity, to work life balance has come into the foray of the ’20s. Suffice to say, my mental health has had an unlimited buffet of uphill battles to consume, but then I found Mar Mar.
As we wrapped up I asked Liza who she was without cooking. She paused for a second, seemingly lost in the almost hypnotic stirring of chili oil, and we found ourselves back in that time-stop void to contemplate the question. ‘Someone who wants to spend time with their family and friends. You know, I just love them, and I want to enjoy all the time I can with them.’ After her kids grew up, she prayed hard to find that next chapter. I can imagine at that age it’s difficult trying to start something new. But two words surfaced in her cerebral spaghettios, and with that her path became indelible: feed them.
Like ride outs and street art, food is another fantastic medium to bring people together. Forget the sappy gatherings around the dinner table, this isn’t a 90s sitcom *studio audience laughter*. But, when we do actually manage to put the phones down, and sit with each other, we can share in that same time-stopping experience. My challenge to you: have a family dinner night. You don’t even *have* to cook. As much as I love making my signature dish, Apple Bourbon Japanese Curry, I’ve brought home Sheetz more than once (because it’s better than Wawa). Either way, crew up with some real ones, and jam out on some delicious noms. Ideal ingredients make a good dish, but quality company makes the meal great.
Okay I lied
Products this good are worth endorsing:
Check out the Mar Mar website here, oh and take 10% off with promo code “Penrose”
Photos by Mike Avey.