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THE BIG MIX : Restaurants : The Emerging Filipino Cuisine : With its Spanish and American heritage, the food of the Philippines is a tasty mix indeed

February 05, 1989|BARBARA HANSEN

A first-rate Filipino meal in the United States? Until recently it was almost impossible to get. Family-oriented Filipinos are so accustomed to entertaining at home that, even in Manila, dining out is a relatively recent phenomenon. And unlike many other immigrants, most Filipinos arriving in the U.S. speak English and can easily find work. This means few of them end up working in restaurants or opening eating places of their own.

But immigration has been so brisk that Filipinos are now the second-largest Asian ethnic group in the United States (Chinese rank first), and the largest in California. Many are hungry for a taste of home, and as the surge of immigrants continues, enterprising Filipino restaurateurs are starting to reach a ready market.

Right now the clientele is primarily Filipino. Americans have taken to Thai, Vietnamese and spicy Chinese dishes with enthusiasm, but most know very little about Filipino food. Political unrest in the islands has inhibited tourism, and few Americans have encountered the food first hand.

Paradoxically, this is the one Asian cuisine that should be the most acceptable to Westerners. More than 300 years of Spanish occupation and almost 50 years under the American flag have strongly marked Filipino culture and cuisine. Paella is as popular as pancit (the Tagalog word for noodles). And steak, barbecued chicken and macaroni salad share the table with such indigenous dishes as lechon (roast suckling pig served with liver sauce), daing na bangus (fried milkfish) and pinakbet, a vegetable combination that includes eggplant, bitter melon and a heady shrimp paste called bagoong.

There is, of course, a more adventuresome side to Filipino food. Filipino cooks, for instance, are famous for wasting nothing, hence dishes such as tripe, pig ears and others from assorted internal organs.

Some dishes remain totally Western. Flan, the most common dessert, is like flan anywhere. Others incorporate a Filipino touch. Steak might be seasoned with garlic and soy sauce. Fruit salad might include translucent palm seeds or shreds of buko (young coconut). And a chiffon cake might be tinted a startling lavender because of the use of a purple yam called ube. Exotic contributions also come from the Chinese, Malays and Indonesians. But chiles are used so sparingly that Filipinos have the mildest food in Southeast Asia.

How good is Filipino food here? Manila-born Cecilia De Castro, who conducts training classes for chefs, misses the fresh taste of just-caught fish and shrimp. "It's very hard to translate the flavor without the freshness," she said. All restaurateurs miss the luscious, buttery-smooth mangoes of the Philippines. Without them it is impossible to make such entrancing desserts as mango jubilee, a flaming fruit concoction that is spooned over ice cream.

We also can't get tangy-sweet green mango juice, a common aperitif in the Philippines. Manuel and Corazon Ongpauco Tamayo of Barrio Fiesta in Los Angeles apologize for using tomato instead of green mango in a relish that accompanies a platter of barbecued meats and seafood. On the other hand, Manuel Tamayo thinks some dishes taste better in the United States because Philippine-made ingredients here are of export quality (superior to what is sold in the islands).

That doesn't stop the Tamayos from bringing in bagoong made by a Manila restaurant chain, because it tastes better than the brands sold here. Their cooks insist on peanut butter from the Philippines. And Manila is the only place they can get the Chinese brand of banana flavoring that they use in sago and gulaman, a sweet drink made with gelatin cubes and sago pearls.

One of the first Filipinos to enter the market was veteran Manila restaurateur Rey Bautista, who opened Tito Rey of the Islands in 1984 in Daly City, near San Francisco. His clientele there is 90% Filipino, and he serves them the more exotic sorts of Filipino foods, including the aforementioned tripe and pig's ear, as well as pork fat, liver, shrimp heads and dinuguan , which is composed of pork meat and internal organs simmered in blood. But when Bautista opened a West Los Angeles branch of his restaurant (11829 Wilshire Blvd.; (213) 479-7008) in 1987, he changed the menu to suit the non-Filipino area. Westernized creations that he introduced here include a "Filipinized" Caesar salad--crisp-fried pork skin and dried shrimp replace croutons, and a touch of bagoong flavors the dressing. A tiny bit of bagoong also goes into the dip that accompanies an appetizer of batter-coated, deep-fried kangkong (water convolvulus) leaves.

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