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Filipino cooking goes crossover cool

Lily flower, kalamansi -- Papillon's vegetarian take on the cuisine is fresh and authentic.

June 20, 2007|Susan LaTempa | Times Staff Writer

SO few Filipino restaurants open up in the L.A. area these days that Papillon, a 3-year-old Filipino-Chinese spot in El Segundo, would be a rarity in any case. But it's a vegetarian restaurant, which makes it a real rarity, given the carnivorous focus of Filipino cuisine.

And therein lies its crossover appeal. The cooking's so good, with flavors so fresh and bright, that Papillon works as a lunch or dinner spot for folks in the neighborhood no matter what their dietary preferences; meanwhile, it's worth a trip for vegetarians looking for variety.

Using soy-based meat analogues (i.e., fake chicken, pork and beef) imported from Japan and Taiwan, Papillon's menu features an array of Filipino specialties in veg form -- versions of pancit bihon (stir-fried rice noodles), embutido (stuffed sausage), adobo (garlic-vinegar braised dishes) and escabeche (sweet-sour dishes).

Not usually into soy or gluten "meats"? Me either. But Papillon's are often delicious. And the range of preparations is just right. There are more than a dozen interesting entrees as well as a selection of simpler dishes such as two-ingredient stir-fries.

Papillon is a family-run spot owned by husband-wife team Chris and Sherry Florido, first-time restaurateurs who both have day jobs elsewhere. They developed the menu, basing dishes on Sherry's recipes. She still prepares the sauces and makes the baked embutido.

It's a small spot on the picturesque main street of El Segundo, the little town that's tucked away between the Westside and the South Bay. Nothing fancy -- terra cotta tiled floor, white-clothed tables, a painting that evokes Pacific island beaches.

The absence of rich meat ingredients and a light hand with oils translate here into dishes that are much more delicately flavored and refined than you'd find in your typical neighborhood Chinese. The menu plays up the piquancy and sweet-sour contrasts so much a part of Filipino food, with wonderfully restrained touches of chile in some sauces and marinades.

Housemade lumpia, Filipino egg rolls, are an obvious first course. Hot and crisp, these are very flaky, stuffed with soy paste and crisp julienned vegetables that might include chayote, cabbage, carrots and onions.

Lily flower is an often-overlooked delicacy that shows well in Papillon dishes such as hot and sour soup. These slightly crunchy lily buds might be mistaken for mushrooms, with which they combine beautifully, but they have their own earthy flavor. Another soup, sinigang, has the tang of a tamarind-infused broth, hearty vegetables such as eggplant and green beans, and chewy bits of mock pork.

A splash of vinegar or citrus, including kalamansi (sometimes spelled with a c; also known as Philippine lime) brightens many dishes here. At Papillon, the kalamansi come from trees in the yard of the Floridos' El Segundo backyard. They have a tangerine-like fragrance and a mild orange-lemon flavor and are showcased in a delicious honey-sweetened drink.

A dish called Papillon's Choice is a fun way to get the lay of the menu. It's a combo platter with rice, some fruity caramelized plantain, hot golden squares of fried tofu and skewers of mock barbecue pork. It's not that the pork tastes like meat but, rather, that it has its own appealing texture and is infused with a satisfyingly smoky-barbecued flavor.

Noodle dishes are made with rice noodles (pancit bihon) or Chinese wheat noodles (pancit Canton). They're a glorious heap of stir-fried noodles, piles of crisp vegetables and small, tasty bits of mock shrimp, chicken, pork and beef, each with its own distinctive flavor and texture.

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Something for everyone

SOME dishes are mostly mock meat, which doesn't appeal to our table at first, but when urged by the server we order the house special vegetarian chicken, a platter of grilled mock chicken, toothsome with pleasant bits of char, served over a chiffonade of lettuce. It comes with a sweet-spicy soy-based sauce and is offered with sliced jalapenos to scatter on top. Fabulous, and first thing on the list the next time we come.

Tasty vegetarian embutido resembles a light meat loaf, ground mock pork studded with diced carrots, onions, red and green bell peppers, raisin, peas and pickles. The slices are fanned out prettily on the plate for a homey individual dinner or as part of a shared array of dishes.

At Papillon, meat-eaters can be accommodated with real-meat dishes found on a non-vegetarian portion of the menu. Service is warm and welcoming, with a casual family air.

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