Sept. 27 2013 06:01 PM

National City hole-in-the-wall brings flavor and value to the table

Chicken Adobo
Tita’s chicken adobo
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

Filipino food is the Rodney Dangerfield of cuisine: It gets no respect. Pho joints are ubiquitous. Robertos, Albertos or Adibertos, there's a "... bertos" taco shop coming soon to block near you. Though only .04 percent of the population of San Diego County speaks Thai, there's no shortage of Thai restaurants, yet while 1.91 percent of the county's population speaks Tagalog—our third most prevalent language—there are comparatively few Filipino restaurants. Why? 

It's not because the food sucks. Characterized by sweet, sour and salty flavors—often crashing together in the same dish—Filipino food features familiar flavors combined in unfamiliar ways. Drawing on the Chinese and Spanish influences of their trade and colonial history, Filipino cuisine is a fascinating pastiche, and it is tasty.

Perhaps the best place to experience Filipino food in San Diego County is at Tita's Kitchenette (2720 East Plaza Blvd.) in National City. There is nothing fancy about Tita's. It is a grill, a large steam table, a phalanx of servers and a very long line stretching out the door. The utensils are plastic and the plates are Styrofoam, and you wouldn't want it any other way. And the portions at Tita's—$7 for a two-dish combo—are anything but modest. One could probably feed two hungry adults. Three, maybe.

If lumpia—Filipino egg rolls—isn't the national dish of the Philippines, then that honor probably goes to adobo: meat stewed in soy sauce and vinegar with bay, black pepper and garlic. The saltiness and deep umami of the soy is balanced by the vinegar's acidity. It's not a balance achieved through elegant harmony of ingredients but rather by the fireworks from their collision. So, why isn't it part of culinary America? Do Filipinos wonder whether Americans would come to a restaurant featuring such a dish?

Then there's sisig, a dish classically made from the cheeks and ears of a pig's head that are boiled, broiled, chopped, fried and seasoned with onion, chiles and citrus. Tita's version is made with lechón pork belly rather than the more intimidating parts. The flavor profile of the dish is both tart and spicy, and the textural contrasts add more interest. If you want the sisig, get to Tita's before noon or, chances are, you'll find that it's sold out. Why is there not a sisig joint on every corner? Do Filipinos wonder whether the stuff would sell?

Other standouts at Tita's are the dinuguan (pork parts stewed dark with spices in the pig's own blood), bistek (beef cooked in citrus and soy) and menudo (using pork loin and not tripe, as in the Mexican dish of the same name). All are served with rice or pancit noodles. All are delicious.

So, why does Filipino food get no respect? Part of it is Americans' unease with dishes where bones come out of the mouth after the meat's gone in—common in Filipino cuisine. Some of it may be the lack of restaurants. And some of it may be an identity crisis among Filipinos. If they can't see that Americans would readily embrace what their cuisine has to offer, how can Americans see it?


Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER

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