My introduction to Filipino food was at a potluck at my first job. I was delighted by the homemade pancit (stir-fried rice noodles), chicken adobo (stewed in a soy sauce and vinegar-based sauce) and lumpia (fried egg rolls). Since then, I regrettably have not furthered my education, as I always went for my beloved trifecta. Queries to friends about the best restaurants to try new dishes often resulted in "Oh, my mom / aunt / grandma makes the best food."
I could show up on their doorsteps, but I don't like scaring older relatives. So, with a list of recommendations from my friend Darlene of My Burning Kitchen and a few locations scouted, I set off in the early morning, hell-bent on taking advantage of the piping-hot pan de sal at Valerio's Bake Shop (2720 East Plaza Blvd.) in National City. There's little signage, but there was a whiteboard behind the cashier with "HOT" and a short list of breads and buns. I ordered baked siopao stuffed with chicken and pork and pan de sal. Served hot, pan de sal is a fresh white bun with a subtle saltiness to it. The baked siopao (a steamed version is also available) was an egg-based bun filled with ground chicken and pork.
Tita's Kitchenette, with its grill and bank of steam trays, is next door. Combination plates, a better deal than à la carte, begin with pancit or rice and numerous items to choose from. There's sisig, pork cooked with chiles and calamansi, a citrus fruit. The pork is tender, there's no sauce and the flavor is tart without being sour. Delicious Filipino-style barbecued chicken is served as giant skewers of juicy chunks with a soy-sauce marinade. Sinigang is a slightly spicy, tamarind-soured soup filled with chunks of pork, collard greens and green beans.
There's a separate area for sweets, with tubs of ice cream at the front, including a screaming-bright purple ice cream made with ube (purple yam). The tuber is often used in Filipino sweets, giving them a gorgeous lavender color not often seen in food. The ube ice cream is a fine finish to any meal, but for a dessert that isn't too sweet, there's halo-halo. Halo-halo, translating to "mix-mix" in Tagalog, is a mixture of beans, jellies (either made from coconut water or unflavored) and various fruits. The mixture is topped with shaved ice and evaporated milk.
I didn't care for Tita's halo-halo, but I was on my way to Manila Sunset (925 East Plaza Blvd.) to pick up some bibingka, and I liked theirs more. Topped with a scoop of ube ice cream and Filipino leche flan, the jelly / bean mixture on the bottom was tastier and included chunks of coconut. Bibingka is a cake made of rice flour and coconut milk in a banana-leaf lining. Manila Sunset's is fluffy and delicious, served with a topping of shaved coconut.
If you're new to Filipino cuisine, these dishes are a great introduction—and you don't have to crash anyone's home-cooked meal.