Thursday, December 24, 2009

Fantastic Filipino Food

So, this one started out as a bet between my sister and myself.   Having explored the extent of Filipino fast food, at places like Golden Coin, and having thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Zimmern's adventures in the Philippines, I really wanted a taste of the real, authentic, homemade Filipino food.  I wanted to begin exploring my own backyard for some place serving the real thing.  Now, my sister has quite a number of Filipino friends from Hawaii, who she met in school on the mainland.   So I asked her, to ask them, where to find the really good Filipino food here in Hawaii.  I wanted insider knowledge.   Just as I could rattle off the best Chinese places, I wanted a local Filipino guy to tell me where all of the good Filipino places were.   Her response was that, while available on the mainland, it simply didn't exist in Hawaii.  I was immediately, simply taken aback.   How could that possibly be true, when we have such an incredibly large Filipino population.  Even moreso, how could it be available on the mainland but not here, when we have such a big Filipino community.  Her rationale was that the Filipino population here is more prone to eating at home than eating out.  Therefore, there are no restaurants that serve the really good Filipino food.   Whereas on the mainland, everyone's so independant, that they don't eat at home with their families, and the demand for authentic Filipino food is greater.  While logical, I just couldn't believe that our local Filipinos community wouldn't have something really authentic and good to offer the rest of the us, their plantation neighbors.   So I set off on another quest, to find the really good Filipino food here, and more importantly to prove my sister wrong.

The Filipinos came to work on our sugar cane plantations very shortly after the Koreans, in 1906.  Like the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, they quickly found a new home in these islands, and fast friends in their island neighbors.  The neighborhoods of Kalihi and Waipahu became predominantly Filipino.  Driving in Kalihi is always fun because you get to see the fancy Filipino architecture, immediately recognizable by the balconies and the colors.  In my quest to find the good Filipino food, I again looked to Frank DeLima's "Filipino Christmas".   The one (to the tune of  "Oh come let us adore him"), "You'll find us in Waipahu!  You'll find us in Waipahu!" seemed like a veritable sign for me.  And indeed, I did find them, and good food, in Waipahu.  

The name that kept popping up in Waipahu for the best Filipino food, was Thelma's Restaurant, right on Farrington Highway.  So one day after visiting a client in Waipahu, I decided to pop in to Thelma's.  The first thing that surprised me, was that they were offering a lunch buffet.  Like the Indian buffet at Zaffron, this was a wonderful way to first get exposed to real Filipino food.  There were about a dozen dishes, most of which were completely unfamiliar to me.  The most predominant thing that you notice about Filipino food in general, is that while using many of the similar flavors to all Asian cuisine, like shoyu and fish sauces, there is a distinctly sour component to many of the dishes.  They love sour fruit juices and vinegar.  This combined with the pungent fish sauces, make a distinctly Filipino flavor.    Thelma's is a great way of trying a wide variety of new dishes.  While this gives the buffet a distinct advantage, the drawback is that you are unable to really familiarize yourself with a few representative dishes.  You aren't able to name any dishes, or really understand their composition.  Additionally, buffet food is never the highest quality, since it sits there for so long.   So while a fantastic cursory overview, to really get familiar, and make some favorites, you need to move beyond the buffet.

After a bit of additional research, I found the place that I would consider (as many do) the best Filipino food on the island.  It is a little restaurant right on River St. called Mabuhay Cafe.   It was a little intimidating at fist, being a non-Filipino walking into this restaurant.   I was a bit afraid it would be like walking into a saloon in those old Westerns, were everyone suddenly stops talking and turns to stare at you.   But they certainly made me feel welcome.  Their walls, are completely covered with Filipino luminaries that have graced their tables.  I took it as an instant sign of quality that they had a picture of Ben Cayetano on their wall.   If the place was authentic enough to satisfy our own Filipino governor, then it must be good.   The only problem with Mabuhay Cafe is that they're located in a somewhat unsavory part of town.   Even parking across the street, I was accosted by a druken crazy person offering me his sage advice.  It's not the kind of place, I would want to take a date, or any female friend for that matter.   Then again, once walking through the doors, you're in an oasis of good food. 

Pork Adobo at Mabuhay Cafe
As the baseline for a visit to any Filipino restaurant, you just have to try the adobo.   It gives you a good reference point, but besides that, not having the adobo is like learning about Japanese food and never trying sushi.   Adobo is so iconic of Filipino cuisine, that you simply need to try it.   But when I tried the pork adobo at Mabuhay cafe, my jaw almost dropped.   Their adobo was quite simply the best adobo I've ever had in my life.  It was like I had never tasted real adobo before.   Their meat was incredibly tender.  Fork tender, the way you can only get it if it's stewed for a really really long time.   While it had some vinegar taste, it was very light.  Some adobo I've had is overpoweringly sour, but theirs wasn't sour at all.   The most distinctive spice in fact was black pepper, but it wasn't ground pepper you taste.  That kind of flavor only comes from whole peppercorns, that have again been stewed long enough to infuse the meat with their flavor.   It's a little oily, but it's a very flavorful oil.  All in all, it wasn't nearly as overpowering as other adobo, and much more savory.  It's one of those classics, that even the uninitiated can recognize is a classic.

Pork Gisantes at Mabuhay Cafe
Following the adobo, I opted for another classic dish, pork gisantes.   Like the adobo, I've had gisantes where the tomato is very strong and sour.   But their gisantes is just wonderfully savory.  The peas have a really strong flavor, giving it almost the taste of split pea soup.   But unlike split pea soup, where the peas are nothing but mush, giving it a baby food texture that I've never liked, the peas in the gisantes are still whole, and though soft, still have enough distinct texture to that I really enjoyed it.  Again, the best pork gisantes I've had in my life.

Crispy Pata at Mabuhay Cafe
I wanted to have lechon, but looking on the menu, I found something that was a little more interesting.   Instead of roast pork belly, they have deep fried pig's feet, called crispy pata.   I'm used to pig's feet being in soup, and being basically a melt in your mouth skin.   The crispy pata on the other hand, turns the skin into an uber crunchy pork rind.  And I have no idea how they find so much meat in the pig's foot, but it's very meaty.   It's not like lechon or roast pork, where you've got layers of fat and layers of meat.   The meat here is just meat, but it's the perfect meaty texture.   Some people may be a little scared to try pig's feet, but once you get a bite of that awesome crunchy skin, you're hooked.

Fried Tilapia at Mabuhay Cafe
Filipinos are also well known for their fried fishes.   When done right, the fish is fried to the point where the fins and the tail take on the texture of potato chips.  It's awesome.   They're also known for using a fish that the rest of us consider somewhat repuslive, tilapia.    In Hawaii, the tilapia swims in some of our most poluted streams (like Nuuanu stream itsef).   Since tilapia takes on the flavor of whatever it's swimming in, most of us feel that eating tilapia is roughly the equivalent of shoving garbage in your mouth.   My dad said that he used to have Filipino co-workers that would even fish the tilapia out of Nuuanu Stream.  He said that the trick was to throw the fish into a tank of fresh water for about a week or two, continually changing the water.   Doing this, essentially flushes all of the nasty taste out of the fish.  I'm not anxious to try it, but I'm sure that the tilapia served at Mabuhay Cafe is farm raised.   It's delicious, and even my dad, who isn't as big a fish eater, he realy enjoyed their fish.  The best part is the cheeks in the head, and the collar right behind the gills.  

Filipino food has a bad stigma for dishes like black dog and balut.  While neither of these dishes are on the menu at Mabuhay Cafe, there are other dishes that most people would find a little frightening.   Dinuguan, for example is basically a stew of pig guts and blood.   The velvety, dark black color, reminiscent of a squid ink stew, is a little scary to the Western palate.   I myself would love to try it, but I'm just not allowed to eat internal organs anymore.  As I really love ox tail, I was intrigued by their kare kare, which is a sort of peanut butter flavor stew.  The problem again, is that it's cooked with tripe, which I'm not allowed to eat.  Mabuhay Cafe also has some prominent goat dishes on the menu, something I've never found on any other menu around the island.   Being quite fond of the gamey taste of lamb, I thought that I would really enjoy goat as well.   Unfortunately, goat has a lot of small, brittle bones that shatter and must be picked out of your food.  The little bones made the goat somewhat less enjoyable for me, so I'm not as fond of it.  

Admittedly there are some flavors that I just aren't that appealing to me.   They have a vegetable soup called sinigang, which has a very sour tamarind flavor.   I'm not really fond of sour soups, so sinigang just isn't very appetizing to me.   Probably the most famous Filipino vegetable dish is a mixed vegetable stir fry called pinakbet.   It's got all kinds of vegetables in it.  Most people don't care for it, because it's flavored with bagoong (their famous shrimp paste, similar to Chinese harm ha), which has a very strong flavor.   I personally love harm ha, so I have no problems with the pungent flavor, but the main vegetable in the mix is one that I just don't like, bitter melon.   Bitter melon is something that my Po Po used to love, and something my dad really enjoyed as he got older.   We figured that as you get older, your taste buds aren't as accute as they are in your youth, so stronger flavors like bitter melon appeal to you more.  But as kids, we just don't like it.   So every year, we take a little taste, shudder, make a horrid face, and say "nope, I'm still young!"

Mabuhay Cafe is easily the best Filipino food I've ever eaten, and a great place to try exciting new flavors.   The best part about it was, that I definitely won my bet with my sister.   We really do have excellent authentic Filipino food here, as we should considering how big a part of our island community the Filipinos have been.

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