Christmas came early for me this year. Magic Wok, one of my favorite restaurants in the whole world, re-opened after the fire that gutted one of its neighbors last September forced it to close.
We were in the area on Saturday, and in a practice that had become routine, we drove by with our necks craned out of the window, checking if our beloved hole-in-the-wall had recovered. Then, amidst all the scaffolding and propped-up wooden boards, we saw it. A sign of hope, a sign of life, a sign that said "We're Open".
It was a Christmas/Festivus miracle!
We hailed "Hallelujah!" and jumped for joy in our seats. Or as close to jumping as our seatbelts would allow.
I swung the car around in a hasty U-turn and parked. We were going to eat there. And were going to eat there now. Nevermind that it was only four-o-clock in the afternoon. Nevermind that we weren't hungry. We'd been waiting three months for this and we weren't going to wait any longer, not even the two hours to dinnertime.
As we stood outside gawking, the setting sun struck the top of the building. The marquee -- one that the Filipino owners never bothered to change when they bought the space from the Magic Wok Chinese fast-food chain -- twinkled triumphantly. Nothing in a strip mall had ever looked so beautiful.
The blaze that engulfed the take-out joint at the opposite end of the row had not touched, singed, or sullied the unit that Magic Wok occupied. It escaped with nothing more than water damage to its exterior. A walk inside confirmed this. In fact, it looked as if nothing had happened.
The same red pleather seats occupied the same cramped booths. The same Latinas waited tables. Even the familiar absence of music remained. All that can be heard was the chorus of smacking of lips; the clink of spoons on plates; the sounds of people eating a good meal.
And the food is exactly as I remembered, prepared the way Filipino cuisine is meant to be enjoyed: home-style and cooked rocket-hot to order.
We ordered a trio of dishes for the two us. It was too much food, too early. But upon consuming my first spoonful of it, my eyes crept back into my head in a state of blissful fulfillment. Up to now, the food from nearby Goldilocks and Salo-Salo Grill had been pale surrogates, filling our stomachs but not our hearts.
This is what I call a homecoming.
The first dish to arrive was Pinakbet ($5.99), a stir-fry that eats like a stew, overflowing with almost every product found in the Asian produce aisle. The variety is such that it might actually be easier to recite what's not in it.
In the roster, there are yellow squash, bittermelon, eggplant, okra, onions, and string beans, each contributing its own eye-popping color and distinct texture to the elaborate potpourri.
Some fatty pork and shrimp rides along as protein, but by far, its defining characteristic, what makes pinakbet pinakbet, is the addition of a flavoring agent called bagoong alamang.
This pungent purplish paste, made from the fermentation of brine shrimp, is concentrated and potent. Alone, its sharp odor could be used as a smelling salt to revive the unconscious. But dissolved in the pinakbet gravy, it pulls the dish together like the force of gravity, rendering it more addictive than crack, especially when the runoff is spooned over rice.
Next was Bistek Tagalog ($5.25). It is marinated steak, sliced thin, caramelized, and glazed with a mix of garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar, finished with sauteed onions. The beef is a little chewy, a little dry, existing in the middle ground between jerky and fajitas. This is one of my favorite dishes there. And it should come as no surprise that it's perfect with hot rice.
Last but not least, glass noodles -- clear, elastic threads which stretch like bungees and wiggle like gelatin -- form the basis for Pancit Sotanghon ($5.25). Stir fried with green beans, lean pork, and tofu, it's something a Filipino mother would whip up for a quick supper. One can't help but slurp when eating it. It's just that kind of dish.
Our bellies doubly full, and our hearts content, we drove away with plenty of leftovers. Magic Wok is back. It's going to be a great new year.
11869 Artesia Blvd
Artesia, CA 90701
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