Cafe Reviews

A Little Bit of Everything Filipino at Halo-Halo Kitchen in Phoenix

Halo-Halo Kitchen is like a mullet gone the way of the Philippines: Filipino food business in the front, Filipino karaoke party in the back.

Tables spread throughout the West Phoenix restaurant's two decidedly distinct rooms allow for guests to decide which portion of the hairstyle, er, Halo-Halo they most associate with. On one side, there is the eatery, a bright white room of Filipino baked goods and groceries and a turo-turo, or a cafeteria-style "point-point" setup of meats and prepared stews that doubles as a place to order all-day breakfast silogs as well as made-to-order traditional Filipino specialties. On the other, a darkened pub called the Kalesa (a horse-drawn carriage used in the Philippines) tricked out with televisions, a full bar, a dance floor, and a karaoke stage.

Given that 29-year-old Brandon Bulos started out selling karaoke machines at the international market in the same strip mall as the restaurant he now owns with his family seems fitting. Born and raised in San Francisco, Bulos came to Phoenix in 1995. When Brandon's mother, Susan, who was a manager at Asian Bistro, Halo-Halo's former Filipino incarnation, saw the restaurant's potential, she bought the place in 2010. The family renamed it Halo-Halo, both for the Filipino dessert and for its meaning of mixing things up, updating many of its familiar Filipino dishes with recipes of their own, and later, adding a bakery.

Inside Halo-Halo Kitchen in Phoenix

"Filipino food is a little bit of everything," Bulos says. "Thai, Spanish, Chinese. There is a joke that says the Chinese came to the Philippines and left their chow mein. We just called it pancit."

There's a good chance you'll find pancit as one of the nearly 20 dishes that rotate regularly on Halo-Halo's turo-turo line, an array of dishes typically spiked with vinegar, garlic, and soy sauce and served up as one-, two-, or three-combo plates with rice.

Staples include lechon kawali, hunks of crispy and fatty fried pork belly that get even better with squirts of the seasoned liver sauce most Filipinos call by its brand name: Mang Tomas. (Bulos says the sang, or sauce, also is excellent atop the deep-fried pork chop breakfast silog.) You'll also find pork or chicken adobo, a Mexican dish run through a Filipino kitchen. And offal lovers could do worse than a near pitch-black helping of dinguguan, the Filipino comfort food of pork and pig parts stewed in pig blood seasoned with garlic, onion, and oregano. Bulos says the longer it sits — when the blood has time to thicken — the better it tastes.

Sometimes there are stews like pinakbet, a very good dish of pork and vegetables like string beans, squash, and bitter melon steamed in shrimp sauce; the chile, pork, and coconut milk concoction called Bicol Express; and the squid dish adobong pusit, featuring the tasty cephalopods cooked in a briny and seasoned sauce of their own black ink.

If you're in the mood for more morning-inspired eats served all day long, there are silogs, simple Filipino breakfasts of garlic fried rice, over-easy eggs, and a choice of sweet or salty meats. With nearly 15 to choose from, Bulos says he has the biggest selection in town, with the top three consisting of pan-fried sweetened meats of dry-cured beef (tapa) and cured pork (tocino), as well as fried bangus (milkfish) spiked with vinegar and garlic.

The best dishes at Halo-Halo are the offal-centric short-order ones. From recipes courtesy of Brandon's dad, there is crunchy, chewy, and juicy slow-cooked pata (pork knuckle) made with onions, carrots, and spices, and a sizzling plate of sisig. One of the Philippines' most beloved hangover foods, this delectable mix of chopped pig ears and snout, peppers, onions, and a fried egg topped with a surprising yet satisfying squirt of mayonnaise is easily one of the best in the Valley. But the real Filipino nod of approval (at least for the Anglo set) comes in the form of chicharon bulaklak. More of a shared snack than an entrée, seasoned and fried "pork ruffle fats" (technically called "mesentery") are served up with a spiced vinegar sauce for crispy and acidic addictive bites that, thanks to Halo-Halo's bar, pair perfectly with a cold San Miguel.

For dessert, there are turons, more or less caramel-drizzled egg rolls filled with banana and jackfruit, or better yet, the creamy Filipino shaved ice creation and restaurant's moniker, halo-halo. Bulos says unlike some Filipino restaurants that use a mix, his are made fresh and with a secret ingredient he hints at being "not that surprising, but rarely used in halo-halos." At any rate, it's good to know that his mother's homemade leche flan, featured as a single cube atop the parfait's medley of shaved ice, evaporated milk, sweet beans, coconut strings, jack and sugar palm fruit, and ube (purple yam) ice cream, can also be purchased full-sized from the baked goods case to enjoy at home.

If Halo-Halo's mostly Filipino clientele — who show up regularly for turo-turo and line up on Saturdays when the restaurant offers fresh lechon baboy (succulent chunks of roasted pork with crunchy skin) — know how to eat, they also know how to party. On Friday nights, Bulos says, they pack the place until 1:30 a.m. (or later), belting out their favorite karaoke tunes, enjoying a libation or two, and dancing to the tunes of a DJ. Even the kitchen stays open late.

In a few weeks, they'll have more to look forward to. Bulos says he's working on a couple of fusion dishes to add to Halo-Halo's menu, like an egg-topped tocino hamburger and a Mexican-Filipino burrito packed with corned beef, scrambled eggs, and Spam.

"I'm also thinking about doing some grilled items," he says. "Filipino food isn't known for being all that healthy."

Never a dull moment.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld