Butch dela Cruz, a moving force in the local Filipino community and all-around bon vivant, along with his wife, is about to guide five curious and hungry Charlestonians through a Filipino feast. The only important food missing is lechon (a very large pig roasted over an open pit) and that is because we are dining indoors at New China on Rivers Avenue (soon to be rechristened Manila Bay). The Alvarados, proud new owners and head chefs, serve as our guides, too, through somewhat uncharted territory.
Filipinos consider themselves Asian and have borrowed here and there from neighboring China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Plus, there's a little dash of Spanish influence (colonizers from 1565-1898) with the occasional cilantro leaf thrown in for flavor along with the standard dessert favorite, flan. They also have just a squirt of American influence: our sailors and soldiers were based there for about 90 years.
After the introductions and some words about Filipino food, we hit the buffet line. It's a cold weeknight and except for a table of karaoke enthusiasts and a few scattered diners, we have the place to ourselves. Several of us begin with hot soup. We can choose from sinigang (chicken soup with large chunks of white meat joined by collard-like leaves and tamarind, a sour fruit) or beef milaga (beef-flavored broth chock full of potatoes and string beans). No won-ton soup in sight here.
The primary appetizer is lumpia, also called Shanghai egg rolls, much smaller than the usual ones, less crispy, fried to a golden brown and filled with onion and ground beef or pork. Our hostess dips them in sweet and sour sauce.
We are told that the most popular main dish is adobo, which is just about any meat or seafood cooked long and slowly in a sauce consisting of soy, bay leaf, and vinegar. On the buffet line there are beef, chicken, and shrimp adobo dishes. Menudo, another popular dish, is a beef stew with potatoes, onions, green peppers, and raisins. Filipinos also favor pancit (thin, soft, rice noodles) combined with seafood or meat. Pancit is as ubiquitous to Filipino cuisine as pasta noodles are to Italian food. We also sample the frequently served shrimp sinigang (shrimp in gravy with eggplant, cabbage, and tomatoes), relyenong manok (boneless whole chicken, easier to eat than to say), and the Filipino national fish: bangus, or milkfish. (I skipped it.) If your taste runs to two-inch-long squids with wavy tentacles that really look like tiny squids, you will find plenty here. I found them, but they were my least favorite dish, primarily due to their wet cardboard-like texture.
For dipping, they have the standard sweet and sour sauce, along with fish sauces from mild to hot, and a green sauce called kare-kare that combines boiled oxtail and peanut sauce.
We wash down our squid and pork and pancit, etc. with the usual: coffee, hot tea, sweet tea, Coke, and cold beer. I am told the Filipinos love their fruit juices and their own brand of beer, San Miguel, which unfortunately was not on hand.
The chef tells us that the primary spices used in Filipino dishes are basic yet profuse: garlic, ginger, red and black pepper, and bay leaves. Popular veggies include okra, many types of squash, amplaya or bitter melon, and gabi or taro root. Common fruits are mango, papaya, coconut, guava, tamarind, jack fruit, and avocado.
For dessert we try fried bananas wrapped in baked or fried dough, resembling a miniature cannoli covered with sesame seeds. Another Filipino favorite is a fried ping-pong sized ball filled with sweetened black bean paste and again covered with sesame seeds. You can also help yourself to plenty of chocolate cake -- I guess that's the American influence. Absent from tonight's menu is bilo-bilo, a liquidy, savory concoction of coconut, casaba melon, sweet potato, and tapioca pearls. It's like a dessert soup.
For further adventures in Filipino dining, I suggest you visit Oriental Cuisine, which began serving in 1970 and features Chinese and a number of popular Filipino entrées. Or you can try Formosa in Ladson, a place that will serve you a hamburger, but I would recommend their $5 lunch special. On my visit I enjoyed sweet tea, bacon fried rice, and a dish you see on every menu: pancit guisado (pancit noodles with shrimp, pork, cabbage, and carrots). If I hadn't been so full, I would have had the angelic halo-halo for dessert: sweet beans with coconut milk and shaved rice.
For something completely different, visit Sonia's Manila Grill. This is a place where you can listen and dance to a live American rock band, play pool, work on your karaoke skills, get loaded at the bar, and/or dine on your choice of American, Chinese, or Filipino dishes.
On the other hand, if you are in the mood to fix your own Filipino dishes -- or anything Oriental -- you can shop at the First Asian Oriental Market on Rivers Avenue. Ask for Hugo, and if he's not too busy he will gladly give you a tour of their cornucopia of Asian foodstuffs. For me, he pointed out all the foods imported from the Philippines. Pick up your canned squid and fish sauces, your wide variety of noodles, your tapioca pearls, either dry or floating in some type of liquid, all kinds of barbecue sauces and soup mixes. For a sweet treat, try one of the desserts in a jar: sugar plum fruit, macapuno string, or pineapple gel.
For a really big get-together, such as a pig roast, stop by MBS grocery and warehouse on Cross Country Road in North Charleston. Owner Maria Boy Samet will be only too glad to tell you all about her Spanish-Filipino-Charlestonian heritage. In Goose Creek, BJ's House of Orientals can fill most of your needs. You can pick up hard-to-find seafood dishes such as smoked roundscad galongong and baby milkfish plus the perfect all-day marinating sauce for your barbecued pig. And if you are really turned on to Filipino food, the owner will sell you airline tickets to Manila and he might even throw in just the right barong shirt to wear while there.
There is hope, however, if you have neither the time nor money to travel to the Philippines. Mr. dela Cruz invites gringos to the 5th Annual Santo Nino Celebration on Monday Jan. 23, to be held at St. Thomas The Apostle Church at 6650 Dorchester Road in N. Charleston. Enjoy folk dancing, Filipino handicrafts, and of course tons of authentic food plus lechon (roasting of the pig). While there, shock and please your hosts by saying the Tagalog words for hello (kamusta), please (ikasiya), bon appetit (mabuti gana), delicious (masarap), and thank you (salamat).
650-D College Park Road
New China (soon to be renamed Manila Bay)
7011 Rivers Ave. (across from Trident Tech)
5623 Rivers Ave. (Gaslight Square)
Sonia's Manila Grill
3381 Ashley Phosphate Road
BJ's House of Orientals
1316 Red Bank Road
First Asian Oriental Market
5611 Rivers Ave. (Gaslight Square)
MBS Grocery and Warehouse
7275 Cross Country Road