I've been eating it my whole life. I know the truth. Filipino food isn't sexy.
There's little glamor in a reddish-brown stew of bitter vegetables in garlicky shrimp paste sauce or a whole fried fish that stares at you unblinkingly as you separate bits of meat from its skeleton. This food doesn't make you want to take out your phone and snap a photo, and for first-time diners, it doesn't exactly make you want to dig in.
I believe that's at least part of the reason Filipino fare has yet to break into the mainstream while many other Asian cuisines have managed to find a place in the regular eating rotations of American diners.
Since 2006, Casa Filipina Bakeshop and Restaurant owners Tess and Tony Menendez have been drawing both American and Filipino customers to their West Phoenix restaurant -- mainly with sweets. The duo of culinary school grads opened the spot as a Filipino bakery after years of working in upscale resorts around town. They expanded it to include a casual sit-down restaurant about a year later.
On the bakery side of the strip mall restaurant, you'll find a long pastry case showcasing hard-to-find baked goods including my personal favorite, emsaymada, a flaky sweet brioche-like roll traditionally topped with whipped butter, sugar, and cheese. There also are vibrant ube tarts, made with the purple yam Filipinos love in sweet desserts, and frosted mango cakes, a common dessert at Filipino celebrations. Stick to this half of the operation and you're in for a treat. But I encourage you to get brave and venture into the savory side, too.
Through an arched doorway you'll enter the no-frills Casa Filipina dining room where a handful of mismatched tables and chairs welcome diners to sit and eat. There's little in the way of style or design, though there is a setup in the back corner for Friday night karaoke. Because Filipinos love karaoke.
On your first visit, I suggest you start with some of the same dishes my parents gave me as a kid.
Ease into it with an order of lumpia Shanghai. The appetizer will be instantly recognizable as a Filipino take on an egg roll -- but better. Casa Filipina's version is rolled long and tight providing a perfect wrapper-to-filling ratio. I've always felt this gave lumpia an edge over its Chinese counterparts. Each crunchy bite of the roll gives way to a flavorful filling of ground pork that's much more satisfying than a bunch of vegetables could ever be.
For entrées, the fail-safe routes include an order of pancit bihon guisado, a noodle dish that's almost as popular with Filipinos as rice. Made with long, thin rice noodles, vegetables, and pieces of chicken, this dish offers more flavor than the similar pancit malabon, which features short egg noodles, shrimp, and hard boiled egg topped with a dusting of crumbled pork rinds.
Chicken adobo will make a good introduction to some of the signature flavors of Filipino cuisine. The dish consists of bone-in chicken thighs marinated in a tart, rich mixture of vinegar, garlic, and soy sauce. Casa Filipina's version is quite good, a solid take on this staple of Filipino cuisine. Spoon the excess sauce over your complimentary side of rice and you'll be doing it like a pro.
An order of lechon kewali also is a safe bet. There's nothing scary about hunks of deep-fried pork belly, each of which will offer a thick, crispy skin that almost sticks to your teeth like candy. The most unfamiliar aspect of the dish will probably be the thick, brown sauce served on the side. Spiked with vinegar, garlic, and sugar, it's so sweet and mild you might not even realize it's made from pork liver.
You can order Filipino breakfast all day at Casa Filipina but the longsilog, a platter that features sweet sausage called longanisa with eggs and rice, was a disappointment. Usually served with a healthy portion of garlic-heavy fried rice and a over-easy egg, Casa Filipina's version offered overcooked sausages and faintly garlic tinged rice.
By the time you're ready to advance to intermediate levels of Filipino dining, you may want to try a side of pinakbet. The vegetable dish features a mélange of Asian favorites including okra, long green beans, and eggplant, as well as thick hunks of bumpy-skinned green bitter melon. The mouth-puckeringly tart squash may be an acquired taste, but it's reasonably well-balanced by being cooked in bold, salty shrimp paste.
Casa Filipina's beef caldereta isn't the best representation of the dish, which traditionally features fork-tender pieces of goat meat cooked with vegetables in a tomato sauce. A better option here is the kare kare, a stew that's traditionally made with oxtail, tripe, and pork. In this case it features pieces of pork tenderloin mixed with vegetables in a thick, savory peanut sauce. A touch of bagoong, a Filipino condiment of fermented seafood, adds a nice layer of umami to the dish.
The seafood options at Casa Filipina may be best reserved for experienced diners. Fried whole Tilapia has been on Filipino menus since long before the cheap fish became a common option for American diners, and at this restaurant, it's as basic a dish as they come. You'll get a whole fish delivered to your table with light seasoning and a sprinkle of green onions. It's up to you to extract the meat while avoiding the network of tiny bones. Do so successfully and you'll have salty, white flesh to dip in a side of vinegar-based sauce or eat with a tomato and onion chutney.
And even with a dangerous structure of bones to avoid, the tilapia still is less intimidating than the adobong pusit, a serving of whole small squids served in a briny sauce made tart with vinegar, garlic, and soy.
It's a shame there's no alcohol at Casa Filipina (nothing wants a beer so much as a pork-heavy dinner), but there are a few drink options beyond water worth exploring. With most meals a cup of thick, sweet mango or guava juice might be too much for the palate. But with the bold meaty and vinegary flavors of Filipino fare, the sugary juice is a nice contrast.
There's no shortage of dessert options to end your meal, but a better investment might be to pick up a few treats for breakfast the next day. A bag of pan de sal (Filipino breakfast roll) is a good buy, as are the plastic-wrapped ensaymadas, which will last a week or more in the fridge. You'll also find boxes of white siopao behind the counter. These fluffy Filipino-Chinese buns come stuffed with either chicken or pork and are best steamed before being enjoyed at home.
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The truth is that in cities with larger, more concentrated communities of Filipino people, there are better restaurants than Casa Filipina. But for those looking to sample the cuisine of the Southeast Asian archipelago this restaurant covers the basics quite well. If nothing else, the pastries are worth the drive.
Casa Filipina Bakeshop and Restaurant 3531 West Thunderbird Road 602-942-1258 www.casafilipina.com
Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday