Villa Manila 500 East Eighth St. National City619-477-8512
Sometimes, when venturing into unknown food territory, it's helpful to bring along a buddy. Two are even better, mostly because you can order more to eat. So I was pleased to have a bit of company around the table at Villa Manila, a spacious and comfortable Filipino restaurant in National City that began as an outpost of Max's Restaurant, a famous fried-chicken chain that's popular in the Philippines.
Before my meal at Villa Manila, my Filipino food experiences had all resulted from a former co-worker sharing her lunches of lumpia and pancit (both delicious, with some familiar Chinese elements) or taking me for Filipino fast food—fried chicken (yes, please) and spaghetti covered with sweet banana ketchup and mixed with cut-up hot dogs (no, thanks). We'd also sometimes go to turo-turos, or “point-point joints,” named for the way people pick out what to order at cafeteria-like, steam-table spots that serve homey, casual food.
Most of it was pretty good, though I never tasted anything that really brought me to my knees, and a frequent eater like me needs a hook, or a shoe-in dish, to seduce me into going all the way with a cuisine.
I was browsing a friend's food-blog post on Villa Manila and happened upon a photo of a mammoth mound of pig parts called a crispy pata, cooked to a golden brown and obscenely immense on the plate. The food porn got even more hot and heavy as I scrolled down the page to the second photo, this one a close-up on a shingle of pork skin to which clung glistening bits of meat and fat—a little alarming to some, but a little bit of a turn-on for me. That said, I was nearly impatient with excitement the day we met up for lunch; I knew that porky deliciousness was mere moments away. My friends, who were a bit less singularly focused, wisely thought to order a few other dishes in case I refused to share the pork.
I'm pretty sure I clapped with delight when it reached the table. and I immediately grabbed the giant steak knife and commenced hacking off chunks of meat. A pata is a whole pork leg, bone and all, simmered to tenderness and then dried, overnight, before a thorough deep-frying. The dish is more skin than meat, but the meat's texture is great, very similar to carnitas. The skin's the star, though, and a mouthful, rendered ultra-crunchy from the fry, combined with the sticky and tender fat and gelatin that lies underneath, is insanely decadent. I think I got a little woozy after just a few bites. The soy, onion and vinegar dipping sauce that comes with it provides nice balance against the richness, and, to hydrate, I drank dalandan juice, a citrus fruit that looks like a lime but has a sweet, sunny orange flesh.
The crispy pata is a little expensive, $20 for the whole pork leg, so hopefully the price tag will dissuade me from eating it too often. My cholesterol level will thank me for it.
Once I'd reached my pata-consumption threshold, I turned my attention to the other dishes on the table. There was the cotton-candy-pink bicol express, a pork stew flavored with bagoong alamang, a dyed, fermented and salted shrimp sauce, mixed with coconut milk. After I ventured a bite, I was pleasantly surprised by the spicy warmth of the dish that made it much more interesting than its circus coloring. The sauce was especially good on garlic rice, a new favorite, with tons of toasted garlic bits in every spoonful. My friends also ordered nilagang baka, a mild but long-simmered soup of beef shanks and vegetables in an onion broth, and pinakbet, a veggie-heavy stew with bitter melon, long beans and squash, though at that point I'd hit the food-coma stage and ceased being able to taste discriminatingly.
Two-thirds of us journeyed on to Bread Deluxe bakery on Plaza Boulevard, next to Seafood City market, for some additional edible exploration. I bought some Filipino desserts, including a dense and sweet leché flan made with condensed milk, and a very tasty cassava cake, with a custardy top layer and chewy, glutinous rice-textured bottom. At an outdoor stall, I picked up a bag of roasted chestnuts to put in my purse to snack on later, or if I got stuck in traffic on the way home.