The week before Halloween, Dave was apologetic, but pork-blood stew just wasn't on the menu. "Remember Kinkoy's -- that place near Fifth and Mission? -- I think they had it, but they closed," he said. "Neither Tito Rey's nor Barrio Fiesta does it -- they consider dinuguan just too low-class. Now, if I could get you away during the day sometime, we could have lunch at Goldilocks' in Daly City ...."
"They don't serve dinner?" I asked, secretly terrified to face blood stew before sunset. "How many readers could sneak off to Daly City for lunch?"
We fixed instead on Tito Rey as probably the best local resource for a serious, sit-down Filipino dinner, short of getting invited to somebody's house. Most of us have sampled lumpia (spring rolls), pansit (noodles), maybe even adobo (pork or chicken vinegar-soy stew) at office potlucks, but it's surprisingly hard to delve further. "This is one of the least publicly available cuisines," Dave observed. "There are several hundred thousand Filipinos living in the Bay Area but very few restaurants in the city -- mainly little lunch places downtown. When Filipinos go out for dinner, they usually choose a different cuisine from what they cook at home. Or they go to a nightclub, like Tito Rey, where the food is good but incidental to the entertainment. "Tito Rey is a big chain in the islands," he added. "The one in Daly City was closed for a while. I haven't been there since it got a new manager."
Dave has traveled to the Philippines several times, gravitating mainly toward Mindanao, the southernmost island of the thousand-mile-long chain that makes up the country. Since Filipino food is as regionally diverse as (say) U.S. food, Dave brought along his friend Wigbert, from the northwestern region of Iloco on the "big island" of Luzon, at the country's northern end. And the food at Tito Rey? "It's mainly Bikol, from just south of Manila," Wigbert explained. "When Bikol people visit other districts, they wear bags of hot peppers on their necks."
We arrived at Tito Rey early, hoping to avoid as much entertainment as possible. Inside are numerous rooms, ranging from a small tropical-looking barroom (next to a tiny, pretty dining room, currently closed) to a giant ballroom, where Latin-American disco starts to blast at 8 each evening.
The main dining room, separated from the ballroom by a half-wall, has tile floors, folksy wooden chairs and tables, Filipino oil paintings, and all the sonic benefits that the ballroom's powerful amplifiers can provide.
To Dave's amusement, the house was out of San Miguel, the Philippines' favorite beer, so we ordered a round of Corona (which was served straight from the bottle, with wedges of lime) and a giant dinner from a menu the size of a world atlas. "Don't be surprised if the food comes slowly, in no particular order," Dave cautioned. "Did you see the front page of the menu, where it talks about how Filipinos like to sample a lot of foods at once?" We checked over a large family banqueting nearby and noticed a little boy eating dessert just as the adults received their entree platters of (in)famous "crispy pata," fried-baked-refried pork. The waitress asked whether we wanted individual or family-style service. We indicated the latter, and our appetizers, soup, and entrees arrived, as predicted, in several mixed rounds. It proved a fun way to eat.
Grandma's Lumpia (Lumpiang Prito, $5.10) had an unusual stuffing of garbanzos, golden raisins, and chopped pork, and a garlicky brown dipping jelly. "The raisins show the Spanish influence on our food," Wigbert commented. "They aren't native to the Pacific, but the Spanish brought them to all the countries they colonized." The chickpeas reminded me of East (and West) Indian dalpuri stuffed breads; Dave verified that there's been an Indian minority in the islands since the days of Queen Victoria's "sepoi" mercenaries.
"Crispy eggplant bites" (Hinipong Talong, $5.95) were juicy slices of shrimp-stuffed eggplant, fried in a batter with a hint of sugar. They embodied a spectacular blend of fishiness, juiciness, and faint sweetness, and came with a vibrant dip suggesting Chinese plum sauce thinned with papaya juice. "Filipinos have a lot of Chinese ancestry," Dave explained, "so a lot of dishes, like this sauce, are adaptations of Chinese food." Both the eggplant and lumpia were nicely greaseless -- which certainly wasn't true of the pork cracklings (Chicharon Bilaya, $4.50), a killer legacy from the Spanish that's a favorite island snack. "What's the heart attack rate in the Philippines?" I asked. "Terrible -- but these chicharrones are still a luxury version," Dave said. "They're usually as thin as potato chips." "Luxury" meant big, thick, and deadly. Apprehensively, we ate just one apiece. The next afternoon I ate one more. It was lunch.
For a soup, Wigbert wisely chose "sinigang," "sour soup" with shrimp (Isisinigang Ko, $9.40). A witches'-cauldron-sized bowl contained a light broth tarted up tastily with tangy tamarind juice. Afloat were assorted vegetables, whole jalapenos, and a mob of whole prawns, with heads, feelers, and shells. Wigbert delicately moved the pink prawns to his plate and deftly peeled them with knife and fork; we Yanks less gracefully used fingers or teeth. The sinigang was a great palate-cleanser throughout the meal, between bites of fried appetizers and rich entrees. "I think this is my all-time favorite soup," TJ decided. "It tastes like a Thai lemongrass soup, but better -- it's spicy but not stinging."
Middinner, the 8 o'clock show time rolled around, but we lucked out; instead of immediate disco, we enjoyed watching an hour's rehearsal for "Cotillion," a stately, choreographed ballroom-dance presentation that relatives and close friends put on at "sweet 16" or anniversary parties.
The menu's version of spicy caldereta stew featured beef instead of the more authentic goat, so for a typical meat dish we chose kare-kare ($9.95), bony pork stewed fork-tender in a suave, heavy peanut sauce with string beans and Asian greens. To liven it up, you daub on Day-Glo crimson shrimp paste. "Food coloring," Wigbert explained. "At snack stands," Dave elaborated, "everything is brilliantly colored -- neon orange, red, blue." "They're probably carcinogenic, but it's not a country with an FDA." You've probably encountered the flavor of undyed shrimp paste before, as an exotic aroma in many dishes from southern China, Thailand, and Indonesia. Here, it lent a complex, fishy, richly salty overlay to the simpler nutty flavor of the stew. "In the north, we make this dish with fish sauce instead of shrimp paste," Wigbert observed.
We ordered stuffed milkfish but the waitress sadly returned, saying the kitchen was out of it. We substituted "Coco Loco" prawns ($12.95), evidently a deep-south dish, with a smooth Malayan-style curry undertone. Swathed in coconut milk, with green beans, scallions, red bell pepper slices, and a light but lively dose of hot peppers, the large prawns were still very tender. "What a burst of flavor!" TJ exclaimed, when his teeth encountered crunchy chopped garlic in the sauce. We concluded with "typical" sauteed mixed vegetables (Pinakbet, $7.95). The vegetable array included yam, eggplant, bitter melon, string beans, and okra (among others), and a large quantity of pork slices and shrimps, unpeeled but salt-marinated to turn the shells thin and edible. "Since when is pork a vegetable?" I asked. "Vegetables are never served pure in the Philippines," Dave said. "There's always meat or dried shrimp or both." Our final dish was adobo fried rice ($3.95) -- very nice, lightly fried rice with bits of pork and chicken adobo.
The Cotillion rehearsal ended and the disco session began with a cumbia. It was loud, oh most loud. Up to then, service had been fine (food served pretty quickly, ice water constantly refilled), but now we wanted to pay up and flee, and our waitress had vanished. Accustomed to customers buying dinner in lieu of the cover charge, apparently she couldn't believe we'd just come for the food, not the fun. "The volume level is -- if you eat, and eat well, your stomach is bouncing," Dave said in an interstice between tunes. I fled to the restroom, which reeked of Opium -- not the poppy but the perfume, rising from the decolletage of the Cotillion's glamorous junior vamps. I stepped outside to breathe but met an assault of Whitney Houston blasting from the bar while rumba boomed from the ballroom. Through the front window I watched my tablemates still wriggling slightly but paralyzed by subwoofers, like prisoners in the stocks.
We finally escaped to tell the tale, and the tale is: It was one of the most exciting meals I've had all year. After the overdoses of Caesar salads and crab cakes and white truffles, it was great to get away -- to encounter Spanish, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Island flavors all blended into a unique, exuberant, and emphatically exotic tropical cuisine.