Have an unquenchable craving for a traditional kamayan-style meal? Take a trip south to San Diego.
t’s one of the questions I am asked most often in interviews: Which of the nearly 80 countries I have visited is my favorite? With one or two exceptions (which I shall sensibly keep to myself), every country I have been to has its own charms. That said, there are some places that have left an indelible mark on my traveler’s spirit, and to which I either long to return or indeed have done so on more than one occasion.
Top of that list: the 7,000-plus islands that make up the archipelago of the Philippines. I may be biased—I am, after all, married to a Filipino-American, and as a result, I have become part of an extended family that has shown me extraordinary hospitality over the last eight or so years. However, long before my wedding day, when I like to joke I became part Filipino by marriage, I had already visited the Philippines and fallen in love with its culture, the warmth of its people and, inevitably, with its food. Even without the prompting of my new family, I would still be a lively ambassador for all matters Pinoy. I have made discovering more about its culture and glorious, but underrated, cuisine one of my key goals.
Even if I don’t get to visit as often as I would like, the significant Filipino-American communities that exist within the United States allow me to regularly immerse myself in the culture and satisfy my cravings for delicious Filipino food without having to endure the 15-hour flight from LAX to Manila. The United States is home to nearly 3.5 million people of Filipino ancestry. And, while there are communities in every state, by far the greatest concentration appears in California, with the biggest density in the southern part of the state. So whenever I develop a deep food craving that only lechon kawali (boiled then deep fried pork belly) can satisfy, it is easy enough to hop in a car and drive to a neighborhood dotted with Filipino restaurants. I would normally do this in my home city of Los Angeles, but a recent visit to San Diego gave me an opportunity to see what was on offer in an area where Filipinos are by far the largest group of Asian-Americans. Many are descendants of those who found their way to this part of the country through the military, particularly the United States Navy.
The United States is home to nearly 3.5 million people of Filipino ancestry.
While interest in Filipino history has ebbed and flowed over the decades, there seems to be a resurgence. Young people of Filipino ancestry are rediscovering the history of their culture, and chefs are bringing the cuisine to the attention of food critics. The community, in general, is beginning to thrive under the banner of being Filipino-American.
So we pointed our car toward National City, a community in the larger San Diego metropolitan area where nearly a fifth of the population is of Filipino ancestry. It was a great place to start our eating adventures. But, before we headed to our first restaurant of choice, we parked our car and took the opportunity to walk around the parade of Filipino food shops to whet our appetites.
For any food-obsessed person, Filipino supermarkets are a wonder to behold: shelves lined with pickles, fish sauces, shrimp paste, palm vinegars and banana ketchup; counters filled deep with ice and fresh fish on display (as well as one reserved just for fish heads); meat counters with neatly arranged cuts of chicken- and pork-related products ready for classic dishes such as adobo and crispy pata; rows of longganisa, a spicy sausage that is a culinary remnant of Spanish colonization and one of my all-time favorite versions of encased meats.
If supermarkets are good, then Filipino bakeries are truly a thing of beauty. The smell of pan de sal, a slightly sweet fluffy bread roll, being pulled from the oven fills the air. Display cases are stocked with ensaymada, another sweet bread, this time topped with grated cheese. Kept warm in a glass case is siopao, the Filipino take on Chinese cha siu bao, and hopia, pastries filled with beans. Lovingly wrapped in cellophane are my favorite of all: ube loaf, a soft cake-like bread that is filled with a swirl of purple yam. It’s delicious on its own—and even better when used as the base for French toast.
I could have quite easily satisfied my Filipino food urge snacking in the bakery, but we had come to this part of National City for a reason, and that was to try one of the most traditional styles of Filipino dining—turo turo, which means “point point” in Tagalog. While I have never quite wrapped my head around the Filipino inclination to naming everything twice, I do particularly like this style of dining, as it allows you to sample more than one dish at a time, choosing from a selection held in trays on a steam table.
Tita’s Kitchenette (2720 E. Plaza Blvd., National City, 619.472.5801) was already filling up when we joined the line. My wife explained the items on offer as we waited our turn to point out our selection of dishes to the friendly servers behind the counter. There were whole bangus, or milk fish, flattened and fried until crunchy; caldereta, a rich and tangy Filipino beef (or goat) stew; trays of lumpia spring rolls; dinuguan, a stew of pork meat cooked in its own blood; and Pancit Malabon, named after the city from which it was invented—it’s a dish of thick chewy noodles filled with seafood.
I wanted to order it all, but my wife was more sensible and reminded me that we had two other restaurants to visit. Deciding to limit ourselves to a shared combo plate of two dishes, our eyes were drawn toward the sight of sinigang soup being ladled into a Styrofoam container, and our noses were drawn to the sizzle of chicken skewers from a grill. We added a large scoop of rice to our selection and made our way to a spare table, and made sure to grab a bottle of chili vinegar. Steaming rice with a splash of vinegar is one of the irrefutable proofs that the world is a good place to be. The same, too, with sinigang, a soup of braised beef that is laced with enough tamarind to bring a sour taste that is, for the record, the perfect hangover cure. Finally, there were the chicken skewers. Chunky pieces of chicken thigh marinated in soy sauce and banana ketchup before being grilled to give them juicy tenderness. It had a deep and rich umami hit as we bit the meat from their wooden skewers.
A short drive away, we found ourselves at stop No. 2—Lisa’s Filipino Cuisine, another turo turo restaurant. A similar selection to Tita’s was on offer, but this time we noticed two things on the steam table that made our ordering easy. The first was a large platter of crispy dilis—tiny dried anchovies that had been dipped in a light batter and then deep-fried. The second was a tray of stubby longganisa that had been coated in a sticky, glistening red sauce. With the prerequisite large scoop of rice, both of these dishes reminded me of why I love this cuisine so much. The dilis had the crunch and saltiness that all Filipinos seem to crave, while the sausages dripped a sweet garlicky sauce down our chins as we bit into them.
That would have been as good a way to end the dining trip as any. However, my wife reminded me that we had one more Filipino meal to experience. Kamayan, which means “with hands” in Tagalog, refers to a traditional way of eating—food is laid out on top of banana leaves and then eaten by hand. Villa Manila in National City has been offering this style of dining by special request for some time. We had pre-ordered our meal, and when we arrived, we found that our table was already prepared with a layer of fresh banana leaves. It didn’t take long for our food to arrive, and I was glad my wife had been so insistent that we take it easy at our previous stops.
An enormous mound of rice was placed on top of the banana leaves, followed by layers of enough food to feed four people, including grilled shrimp, Filipino fried chicken, grilled pork, roasted eggplant, a salad of tomatoes and mustard leaves, salted eggs and a whole grilled milk fish. At first glance, I was convinced that we would be leaving with a sizeable doggy bag. However, once we began to scoop rice with our hands and top it with fish, meat or seafood, the pile began to reduce at a rate that belied the fact we had been stuffed when we arrived. Within 20 minutes, there was nothing left on the banana leaves except a few stray grains of rice, remnants of shrimp shells, chicken bones and fish skin.
That, to me, is the true joy of Filipino cuisine. However full you may think you are, there is always one more delicious dish to persuade you that you can eat just one bite more.
It was a fantastic way to end our road trip, and it definitely satisfied my urge for Filipino food, for the time being, at least. I won’t lie to you. I let my wife drive all the way back to Los Angeles as I slept off my indulgences in the passenger seat. I may well have dreamed of lechon.