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A Flavorful Feast of Filipino Favorites

January 03, 2002|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here's a happy scene: pots brimming with rice, exuberant-looking casseroles and the eager faces crowding around rustic tables. That's the recently opened Barrio Fiesta in Lakewood--a branch, like its sister outlet in Glendale, of a famous Manila restaurant.

You'd never guess that the Lakewood building used to be a Mexican restaurant; today the decor runs to wicker, wood, tinsel and exposed ceiling ducts. Filipino pop music plays constantly on the sound system. When you walk through the door, the first thing you catch sight of is a grill man working massive hunks of pork and chicken over glowing embers.

The Philippines certainly have an island cuisine, shot through, as it is, with overseas influences--Spanish, Chinese and even American. The cuisine generally uses more grease than some people like, but that's not much of a problem here. Many of the best dishes are grilled, and the large, impressive menu uses many cooking styles.

Before tackling it, try some of the specialty tropical fruit drinks. Kalamansi, an island citrus fruit, makes something like a lemon-lime drink with a unique flavor; it's one of the world's most refreshing pick-me-ups. Guayabano, also known as soursop, gives a rich, mild drink. The coconut juice at Barrio Fiesta is wonderful too, thick with shreds of young coconut meat.

Before the main dishes arrive, most diners will be nibbling on crunchy bits of pork or chicken skin (chicharon bulalak or chicken chicharon). One appetizer I can't resist is lumpia Shanghai, 20 tiny fried egg rolls with a dense filling of minced pork. A sweet-and-sour dipping sauce comes on the side. If you don't feel like eating anything from the deep fryer, there are sariwang lumpia, vegetables wrapped in egg roll skins, accompanied by a concentrated black soy sauce.

The unquestioned house specialty is crispy pata, meaty pig's knuckles deep-fried crisp, golden brown, served with hefty knives sticking out of them on wooden platters. This is one of the world's defining fried pork dishes, and nobody in the area does a better version than this.

Jaded appetites might appreciate kare-kare, a stew of beef, oxtail, tripe and vegetables submerged in a stiff, mustard-yellow peanut gravy. It will come to the table in a clay pot, and you're supposed to cut its richness with like amounts of white rice. It's filling yet light on the palate--a seeming paradox. But with the trip, it's an acquired taste.

Those meats you saw grilling as you entered are all very good. Inihaw na baboy is simply broiled pork chops, flavorful from a terrific marinade and properly charred. Longganisa is a rustic pork sausage blackened on a grill.

The best beef dish is bulalo steak, beef shin and marrow served on a sizzling plate.

There are also plenty of seafood and vegetable dishes. Pla-pal sa dahon is a tame dish of tilapia grilled with tomatoes and onions in banana leaves. Sizzling gambas are deliciously spicy shrimp brought to the table on a sizzling iron platter. Adobong talaba are stewed oysters marinated in a vinegar- and sugar-based adobo sauce, which tends to mask rather than enhance the natural juices.

The vegetables tend either to be stir-fries, such as guisadong betchules (basically Chinese long beans turned in a wok with some chopped-up shrimp and pork), or eccentric stuff such as rellenong talong, a fabulous omelet stuffed with spicy minced pork and just enough eggplant to qualify it for the vegetable section of the menu.

I wouldn't dream of eating here without ordering a side of garlic fried rice (sinangag), or, if I were really hungry, adobo rice: white rice fried with adobo sauce.

The desserts include halayang ube, described as purple yam pudding. It looks like dark purple Play-Doh and tastes to me like potato starch. Sometimes, when the weather is hot, I hanker for halo-halo, a sort of sundae of tropical fruits, red beans, agar-agar and puffed rice, all crammed into a dish topped with ice cream. But even the most timid palate will have no problem with leche flan, a creamy caramel custard topped with young coconut (macapuno).

It's party time in Lakewood until further notice.

*

Barrio Fiesta, 5233 Clark Avenue, Lakewood. (562) 633-9602. Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday. Beer and wine. Parking in side lot. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $22-$37.

What to Get: kalamansi juice, lumpia Shanghai, crispy pata, rellenong talong, sinangag, leche flan with macapuno.

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