I've noticed that Filipino food hasn't permeated into the American food culture as easily as Thai food has. Even Vietnamese food is making bigger strides into the mainstream than Filipino food, as more people are becoming familiar to pho and banh mi. So Filipino restaurant food remains a curious mystery to most. It hides in the shadows, lurking only where Filipinos know to find it.
If I had to guess why this is, I think it's because a typical Filipino restaurant menu unapologetically caters only to Filipino tastes - i.e., there's no "beef and brocolli" dumb-downs or items like Pad Thai that can easily cross over.
Also Filipinos have a fondness for sour flavors, and a penchant for anything made with fatty pork. Added to this, Filipino food often does not exhibit the bright and spicy flavors of Thai, or the fresh herb notes of Vietnamese that diners have come to love. It is instead often dark, stew-like, and sometimes...a little scary.
Take a dish called dinuguan for example. Set a plate of this pasty black substance in front of a hardened American carnivore and he will surely recoil in horror when told it is a stew of congealed pig's blood. I, myself, still cannot bring myself to order this dish. It's blood for-gosh-sakes! But then again, I'm not Filipino.
Sure, there are attempts to introduce Filipino tastes to Western palates, like what Yi Cuisine in L.A. is doing. But to me, that's like wading at the shallow end of the kiddie pool. You'll never learn to swim that way.
No, if you really want to find out what Filipino food is all about, you must dive head first into it. You know, get yourself wet. No, not the deep-end. I'm not saying order that dinuguan yet. What I'm saying is, at the very least, try Filipino food in the way it was meant to be enjoyed, in a Filipino family restaurant.
Take for example my new favorite in Artesia. It's a dive of a place, called The Magic Wok (not to be confused with the horrible Chinese take-out chain of the same name). This family run establishment cooks up traditional meals and charge, on average, no more than $5 per dish.
In a spartan room with clunky chairs and tables, crowds of Filipino families hunker down to chow, feasting on all manner of pork, fowl, and seafood. All this is served by an attentive Hispanic wait staff.
Their menu runs laps around the traditional staples like pancit and adobo. But by far, their most popular item is the "crispy pata".
During Christmas, they always run out of this speciality so early in the day, that by 10 am, they have to put up a sign reading "NO MORE CRISPY PATA" to turn away disappointed customers.
I was lucky enough to try their crispy pata last week. And yes, it was a little scary at first.
At around $8 it was one of the more expensive items on the menu. And when it arrived on my table, it made me tremble with fear. Here before me was a ginormous, deep fried hunk of pork leg with the rind still attached and a giant white bone sticking out of it.
The golden rind, pork skin rendered beyond crunchy in boiling oil, is the first thing I tried. The texture is as dense as the crunch is deep. These are pork cracklings on 'roids, and once the crunch subsides, the remainder sticks annoyingly to your teeth. The flavor is fatty sweet, and can be a bit overwhelming if you're not used to it as I was. But I found that a dip in vinegar tames the richness from becoming too overpowering.
Once you've pried off the rind, you uncover a thin, white mucousy layer fat (which you can scrape off) running over ruddy, sinewy meat. This muscle meat here is tender and spongy. A gentle tug and it falls apart into strands, just like carnitas. A dollop of the sweet sauce they give you is the perfect compliment as you eat it with rice.
So if you are accustomed dry, white meat pork chops, with nary a hint of fat; or if you curdle at the sight of the "real parts" of the animal you are eating, crispy pata probably isn't for you. But if you cater to the belief that pork should not be "the other white meat", contrary to the slogan, you might like it.
But if you do try it, like I did, don't order crispy pata without ordering something else to counter its porky-ness. We ordered a steaming bowl of the potent and lip-puckering sour soup called sinigang, made with a tamarind base and containing daikon and green beans. Along with this, we also ate a nicely fried piece of bangus (milk fish) and another plate of fried calamari. The calamari was a standout dish. Caked with a seasoned batter and fried to a dark brown, these rings and tentacles were easily poppable and addictive.
See, Filipino food isn't that scary! Okay...dinuguan is a little. And yeah, there's balut...I won't even go there.
11869 Artesia Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701