A great many food writers claim that the small ethnic restaurants cook circles around the bigger, better-financed competition. Tita Emma's, a modest Filipino storefront cafe in a Santa Ana mini-mall, makes a powerful argument in their favor.
The restaurant belongs to Emma Alcantara, who operates it along with her husband, Nick. Alcantara has been cooking since she was a small child in Vigan, Ilocos, one of the far northern islands in the Philippine archipelago. Last year, the Alcantaras opened a grocery store called Fil-Cal Foods, specializing in Filipino foods such as tamarind candy and spiced pork rinds. The restaurant, two doors down, opened soon after.
Emma cooks up a storm and comforts homesick countrymen with an impressive variety of homey, hearty dishes. Her restaurant is a busy place, dominated by a large steam table that holds several colorful stews. It's short on atmosphere, but it's such a friendly place you won't care.
You eat from plastic plates off glass-topped tables, while Filipino pop music plays aggressively in the background.
Start your meal with quekiam, a long, sausage-like creation wrapped with a gossamer skin made from egg white. It's a soft, meaty pork roll that is cut into slices, and it reminds me of a fine French galantine, flecked with bits of carrot and leek that could as well be pistachio. Eat it with Emma's homemade banana ketchup.
At the left side of the steam table are some sauteed, slightly crisped-up slices of milkfish and pompano with bones still in. There is also some barbecued sausage that the restaurant has made for them locally. The fish are flaky, delicate and tasty. You eat them with rice and they make a good light lunch. The sausage is more powerful, with the sweet, concentrated flavor of Chinese barbecued pork. It tastes best by itself.
Now you are ready to choose from the stews, at least eight different ones that make up a crash course in Filipino cuisine. The most distinctive might just be pinakbet, an Ilocano delicacy of vegetables stewed with bitter melon. Bitter melon, known as ampalaya in the Philippines, is that vegetable that you see in the Oriental markets that looks like a cross between a cucumber and a horned toad. It has a bitter flavor that many people find an acquired taste.
Here, you can eat pinakbet without fear. Emma chooses the bigger ampalaya, which are less bitter, and soaks them to reduce the bitterness. Then she mixes in okra, pumpkin, Chinese long bean and the magic ingredient, bagoongan, a salted shrimp paste with a rosy pink color. Voila. I'll never wrinkle my nose at the mention of this dish again.
Another really unusual dish is munggo: minced pork, tomato, sauteed onion, garlic, and amaplaya in a light soup. It's delicious and not at all bitter. Afritada is more Western (the name comes from Spanish); it's a yellow-hued pork stew with tomato puree, pineapple, carrot and big chunks of potato. And then there is the better known kare-kare, eggplant, long bean and oxtail in a sauce thickened with peanut butter. It's a heavier dish than the rest, and deceptively filling.
On Saturdays, Nick and Emma prepare lechon, a whole roast suckling pig, and, from what I gather, Filipinos from all over come to eat pieces of it. They eat the skin with a sweet sauce made from pureed liver, served in a jar on their condiment tray. I really like this weird sauce, but I think if I had a million words, I wouldn't be able to describe the taste.
There are also some far-out desserts, including the one thing that you absolutely cannot miss here, special halo-halo. This is a variety of fruits and confections served in a parfait glass with shaved ice, and Emma's is the most indulgent anywhere. It's crammed with a dense egg confection called leche flan, young coconut (buko) , pearls of sago (made from the same plant as tapioca), corn, jackfruit, pineapple and gulaman, which are little cubes of cloud-colored jelly. And if this weren't enough, she snows the whole thing under in shaved ice and tops it with a radiant purple ice cream made from purple yams.
Purple ice cream. Who'd ever imagine. The big restaurants must be positively green with envy.
Tita Emma's is about as inexpensive as it gets. Lechon, the most expensive thing on the menu, is $3.95. One course and rice is $2.65. Two courses are $3.25. Three courses are $4.15.
TITA EMMA'S PHILIPPINE CUISINE
2413 S. Fairview Road, Santa Ana.
Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.