On the Hunt for Sacramento’s Filipino Cuisine

Posted on September 8, 2011 – 5:44 AM | by Admin
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By Sarah Singleton  photos by Scott Duncan

Bold.  Sweet.  Sour.  Salty.  While other Asian cuisines feature one or two of these characteristics, the food of the Philippines delivers these flavors all at once, often in the same dish.  Filipino cuisine is the mash up of available island ingredients influenced by China, Taiwan, Spain, America and Mexico, developed over centuries of trading and immigration. 

Filipino food could very well be the next new wave of trendy Asian cuisine.  In the greater Bay Area there are a multitude of mom-and-pop restaurants, not to mention several Filipino gourmet food trucks.  Sacramento is home to more than 40,000 Filipino residents, but you’d be hard pressed to find much representation in the way of restaurant fare.  Most are fast food, either chains or steam table take-away.   Where can someone like me find my inner-Filipina?  My friend Genie Balantac McChane adds fuel to the fire by telling me that her mom makes so much delicious food that she sends it home not only to Genie, but to multiple family members.  Other co-workers and acquaintances tell similar stories about tasty home-cooked and abundant meals.  A hungry girl like me cannot get by on pot-luck lumpia alone, no matter how scrumptious it is.  I simply had to find more.

On the north side of town, I found Fil-Am Bakery and Fast Food (4571 Gateway Park Blvd).  Fil-Am is cafeteria-style, a long steam table filled with different dishes.  Order a combo plate, with either rice or pancit, a noodle dish similar to chow mien, plus 2 meat or vegetable items.   Adobo is  considered the national dish of the Philippines, so naturally I had both pork and chicken adobo – tender hunks of meat braised in a vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and chile mixture.  This dish was easily our favorite – the meat had a deep, savory flavor with a hint of tang from the vinegar.  The menudo, like it’s Mexican cousin, features pork but the likeness ends there. Filipino menudo is stew-like, with a thick, savory sauce and hunks of potato and studded with chickpeas. The bisteak–slices of beef cooked until tender with slices of onion –was comforting over steamed white rice. Sausage lovers shouldn’t miss the longaniza – a small red sausage seasoned with anato, paprika, garlic and vinegar.  The turon was a tasty end to the meal, sweet banana wrapped like a lumpia, then fried and glazed with a sticky sweet syrup.  Atmosphere?  There is none.  Get your food to go.

In a nondescript shopping center on Mack Road is Seafood City (6051 Mack Road) – a vast grocery outlet which also sports a food court with all manner of Filipino fast food, including Red Ribbon, Chowking, Jollibee and Grill City.  Genie and I started at Grill City, which essentially is another steam table, laden with food.  This steam table had much more variety and we opted for a grilled and stuffed milkfish, overcooked and dry, but the vinegar-y sauce and vegetable stuffing saved it from being inedible.  We also sampled dinuguan  or “chocolate meat” – which is really a pork stew made with pork blood and tender morsels of variety meats.  Think blood sausage, but in stew form.  We ate it with rice and it was, for this inexperienced eater – surprisingly pleasing.  One of Genie’s favorites at home is palabok.  We tried Grill City’s version – thick noodles topped with hard boiled egg, crushed peanuts and toasted garlic.  Genie decried it as “not as good as mom’s,” but I enjoyed the crunchy bits of garlic and peanuts strewn throughout.

Across the food court sits Jollibee, a popular fast-food chain in the Phillipines.   The larger outlets have burgers, breakfast plates and palabok, but the storefront inside Seafood City is limited to fried chicken and spaghetti.  You can even order a combo plate of a piece of crispy fried chicken with gravy (pretty good) and spaghetti with tomato sauce  (not so good).  The spaghetti is comprised of  noodles covered with a sweet red sauce reminiscent of ketchup with chunks of hot dog swimming about, inexplicably topped with cheddar cheese.  I love hot dogs, so was happy to give the JolliDog a try.  A decent hot dog in a standard soft bun, dressed with a mayo-mustard-sweet-relish concoction, topped with more of that cheddar cheese and a squiggle of Jufran, or banana-flavored ketchup. Sweet, sweet, sweet.  Ugh.  Jollibee is opening up what looks like a larger restaurant next door to Seafood City so if you’re interested in checking out the rest of the menu, wait until it opens to visit.

Next door to Jollibee is the Red Ribbon, a bakery.  Out in front are shelves that proudly show off ensaimada – buttery buns topped with a slathering of margarine and dusted with Parmesan and sugar and finally topped with more of that cheddar cheese.  Also notable are the bright purple ube (yam) cakes, which were tempting with their psychedelic coloring.  Try a halo-halo (Tagalog for “mix”), a shaved ice and condensed milk treat that is layered with sweet beans and fruit. 

Have you ever eaten something so good that you suspected that the cooks had snuck in a little something addictive in the mixing bowl? Just down the strip mall from Seafood City, Starbread Bakery (6127 Mack Road) makes such a delicacy.  I stopped in just to check out the wares, but I was offered a free sample of their specialty, Seniorita bread. Breadstick-like in shape, but tasting of butter and cream with a crunchy sugar coating on the outside.  This is a clever marketing strategy, as I left with a dozen of the little sticks of heaven. They carry a plethora of other baked goodies like bicho-bicho (little doughnut sticks, some creamcheese filled), empanadas, ensaimada and some savory items like a crunchy vegetable and shrimp fritter that comes with a vinegary dipping sauce.  All terrific and all just a dollar or two.

Fast food, takeout and bakeries are all great, but sometimes a sit-down restaurant is what you require.  The one and only full-service Filipino Restaurant that I could find is South Villa (7223 55th Street), located just south of Florin Road.  The atmosphere is nothing special but there are tablecloths and the service is friendly.  The menu is split between Chinese and Filipino fare and there is a steam table, stocked at lunchtime with Filipino favorites.  We started off with lechon kawali, little cubes of crispy-yet-tender pork, served with little cups of pungent dipping sauces.  Next up was kare-kare, another sumptuous stew made with tender and silky oxtail, fresh bok choy in a light peanut-buttery sauce.

Another Filipino favorite usually missing from steam trays is pinkabet, an Ilocano dish (from the northern region of the Philippines). At our visit, the pinkabet featured eggplant, pumpkin, green beans and bitter melon, along with some sweet, plump shrimp. Although I’m not usually a big fan of bitter melon, it was a welcome flavor jolt alongside the other, more mellow vegetables and shrimp.  Another time, we tried the Filipino-style bouillabaisse soup.  Although it shares a name with a famous French fish stew, it couldn’t have been more different, but equally as satisfying. Instead of a tomato and fennel-scented soup, giant mussels, shrimp, squid and peppers swam in a slightly thickened milky and buttery broth.  

So while I’ve yet to be invited to a real Filipino fiesta to witness these magical food-laden tables, I now have more of a sense of what the melting pot of Filipino food is.  And more importantly, I know where to find it.

  1. 3 Responses to “On the Hunt for Sacramento’s Filipino Cuisine”

  2. avatar

    By brownsugarandbacon on Sep 9, 2011 | Reply

    we used to live in sac and when i was too lazy to cook or my mama was too far away to make me some filipino treats, we would head to goldilocks for lumpia and pan de sol! http://www.goldilocks.com/

  3. avatar

    By Catherine on Sep 9, 2011 | Reply

    Unfortunate, Goldilocks is no more in Sac.

  4. avatar

    By Melanie on Sep 14, 2011 | Reply

    I am a huge fan of South Villa. There used to be a place by SF Supermarket called Golden Manila or something where you could get your fill of ready made pancit and lumpia, but it is long gone.

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