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.
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.