An ube (purple yam) macapuno (young coconut) roll cake from Red Ribbon Bakery. Photo by Lorena Nava Ruggero.
Despite eating Filipino food all my life, it's hard to describe. Showcasing regional dishes, various cooking techniques, international influences and extreme flavors, Filipino food is a delicious fusion of salty, bitter and sour.
But ask any Filipino for a restaurant recommendation and they may be at a loss, citing an aunt's or mother's superior cooking.
“We are always, always, always comparing Filipino restaurant food to the food we can get at home,” says Marvin Gapultos, a Filipino food blogger (BurntLumpia.typepad.com). “I admit, I'm guilty of this, too.”
Regardless, I explored the bakeries, turo-turo (literally “point, point”) joints and grocery stores recommended by family, friends and co-workers. With most Filipinos based in Mira Mesa and National City, it seemed natural to explore north versus south offerings.
But, dieters and vegetarians beware—Filipino food, like many Asian cuisines, incorporates fish- and meat-based flavorings and can be greasy. But, there's a lot of delicious exploration that can be had for those with adventurous palates.
“I don't think there's a single food that any newb should try,” Gapultos says. “Instead, try a variety of things ranging from seafood to vegetables to meats—you know, just a normal Filipino meal.”
Taking that advice to heart, I started in Mira Mesa and ended up at turo-turo restaurant Manila Fast Food (8979 Mira Mesa Blvd.). Located in the same complex as Seafood City, a large Filipino grocery chain worthy of exploration, there were many other Filipinos enjoying a meal when I visited, a good sign.
In turo-turo restaurants, servers dish out combo plates cafeteria-style. Like any place with food sitting in steam baths, go during peak hours to guarantee fresh dishes and high turnover, and be wary of anything that looks like it has been sitting under a heat lamp too long, particularly lechon (pan-fried roasted pork belly), barbecued meat and fried foods.
Manila Fast Food's lechon was disappointing, with more fat than pork, but the flavorful pork menudo (a thick, spicy stew with potatoes and carrots) and tasty beef mechado (a meat-and-potatoes-style dish) were highlights. The pinakbet (a salty and slightly bitter vegetable dish incorporating bagoong, fermented shrimp paste, and ampalaya, or bitter melon), and longanisa (sweet-spicy sausage) were good, too, but not the best I've tasted.
Three two-item combo plates with rice cost about $15 total, making it an economical and filling meal. There were also pictures and labels aplenty, so it was easy to order and non-Filipino friendly.
With precious few Mira Mesa recommendations, I headed south, where most of National City's best Filipino restaurants are located on or near Plaza Boulevard. First up was turo-turo restaurant Karihan (2220 East Plaza Blvd). The kare-kare, a peanut-butter-based oxtail stew, was unexpectedly good and served with a small side of bagoong (add to taste; it's salty). With tender meat, it's not overwhelmingly peanut-y, but watch out for the tender tripe if that's not your thing. Karihan's fresh lechon and barbecue were also particularly good. Other delish dishes included pinakbet and adobo (meat braised with soy sauce, garlic and cracked pepper).
Of course, there's no leaving the complex without stopping at Red Ribbon Bakery. With several locations in National City and one in Mira Mesa, it's well known for its cakes. The airy mango cheesecake is killer, and so are many of the other light, butter-icing cakes, filled with everything from mango to ube, an oft-used, sweet purple yam. Grab a slice, or order up a whole cake. Unfortunately, the savory food offerings and other baked goods leave something to be desired.
For a more traditional Filipino bakery experience, 30-year-old hometown favorite Valerio's City Bakery (1631 East Eighth St.) offers the best desserts and baked goods, like pan de sal (dinner rolls), pan de coco (a coconut-filled sweet bread), siapao (chicken- or pork-filled steamed buns), hopya (sweet red-bean or mungo-bean filled pastry), fresh turon (fried-banana spring rolls) and ensaymada (brioche topped with grated cheese and sugar). Valerio's also does catering and offers savory dishes turo-turo style in the afternoon.
Of course, any review of National City Filipino restaurants would be incomplete without mentioning the most-oft recommended restaurant: Tita's Kitchenette (2720 East Plaza Blvd). With huge, inexpensive servings, the legendary adobo, sinigang (a tamarind-based sour soup) and barbecue were as good as described. Unfortunately, it also featured less seating than Karihan or Manila Fast Food, and brusque, if efficient, service. Still, some consider it worth it for the size and cost of portions.
Bottom line: Those near multiple-location chains like Valerio's City Bakery, Red Ribbon Bakery and Seafood City can get a Filipino food fix if they're unable to head to National City. But, with so much good food in the span of blocks, it's well worth the trip.