The little girl is just two months old, dressed in pink and already able to hold her head up unassisted. She studies my mom and me with intense chocolate eyes, her tiny ears pierced with sparkling diamonds under a shock of coal-black hair. She's wise, this one, Mom and I agree, and as I stroke the wee person's white-socked foot, I can actually -- for the first time in my entire life -- imagine wanting one of these things.
It's an odd sensation -- baby animals, no question, but baby people, I've never had the slightest interest. Yet somehow, in this family-run restaurant packed with friends and relatives, it seems completely natural to want a huge clan of my own. Can a cafe brim with love? This one does.
What a time of discovery, and all thanks to Manila Café, a new restaurant bringing an exciting cuisine to the Valley. It's Filipino food, a dramatic blend of Malay, Chinese and Spanish, with hints of Indian, Mexican, Arab and American influences. The baby is so happy and healthy because her mother, a frequent customer, ate lots of Filipino food while pregnant with her, the owner tells me. She points to photos tacked up on the wall of the little tyke at just two weeks old, and indeed, this infant looked like she had a firm, content handle on the world as soon as she entered.
Much like my mother and I look now, in fact, relaxing for a moment as we try to decide what to order next. Neither one of us is a big (as in quantity) eater, but we're so enamored with this fine food that we find we can't stop. We've been sitting at our table in the tiny storefront for almost two hours, nibbling at plates of things that we can't pronounce but that are almost terrifying in their seduction -- multilayered flavors of vinegar, black pepper, garlic, anchovy and ginger.
Ordering is easy, even with unrecognizable names like bulalo (beef knee cap with vegetables), binagoongang baboy (sautéed pork with fish sauce, tomatoes, onion and garlic) and pritong bangus (fried milkfish). We're not overwhelmed because Manila Café divides its menu into weekdays, with a selection of just five different dishes each day. Making it even easier, there's a chafing dish set up next to the cash register that houses four of the selections, so we can preview our entrees and find confidence that a bizarre-sounding afritadang manok is little more than a dynamite, juicy and perfect sautéed chicken with tomatoes, onion and bell pepper. If we're still not convinced, we can get freebie taste samples.
It's kind of like that baby -- if we want to try something out, the owner will just bring it by, no commitments required. I'm smitten.
The samples come in handy for dinuguan, a dish offered every day. I'm not sure I would have been brave enough to make an entree of it otherwise, skittish over the menu description of pork with pork blood sauce, pork ear, vinegar, black pepper and jalapeño. It's a best-seller with the Filipino clientele, though, chattering happily at neighboring tables or stopping in for takeout. And it could grow on me, I think, all except the chewy, tough ear bits. The sauce is thick and dark like Mexican mole and intense with sharp heat, tempered somewhat by ladling it over a big Styrofoam plate of white rice.
The baby is peeking at us over her mother's shoulder now, nestled in a booth behind us, her silky eyes framed by ebony lashes. She's about to smile, I think, and then she lets loose with a sticky stream of spit instead. I could do this scary kid business, really I could, just as I ventured into the unknown territory of a dish called pinakbet, only to find utter Utopia. Skinny string beans, tart bittermelon shaped like miniature pickles, okra, meaty eggplant and chunks of skin-on pork are boiled into a wicked stew of anchovy sauce that is so casual, so glamorous, so salty-deep that I'm melting.
The Valley has never had Filipino food before, and we've been deprived. I find it difficult to enjoy most generic Chinese food anymore, depressed over heavy, gloppy sauces and the universal taste of cornstarch. Filipino food can be similar in ingredients to Chinese, but is much cleaner and more electric. Igado could be called stir-fry, but it arrives as a pristine concoction of brilliant rich pork chunks, stubs of earthy pork liver and heart, pop-in-the-mouth peas and bell pepper in an opulent stock that bloats rice with its natural richness. That look of peace in the baby's eyes surely came from in utero feedings of tinolang manok, a silky soup of salt-slicked chicken broth bobbing with bone-in, skin-on chicken and chunks of chayote -- much like the idea of Mexican cocido, but tinged with Asian touches of lusty ginger.
If I never thought I could be tempted with ideas of a cotton candy-fragranced infant, I also never would have thought I could be so charmed by a lunatic assembly of pochero, sounding entirely offbeat with pork, beef or chicken sautéed in tomato sauce alongside Spanish sausage, bananas, potatoes and cabbage. But bliss -- I love this wild ride of flavors and textures so much that I'm not even embarrassed to be writing so dramatically about it.
Mom has zeroed in on pancit, a more approachable dish of bihon (skinny, soft white noodles) tossed with a confetti of moist pork, bay shrimp, carrots and peppers made dazzling with a spritz of Filipino lime (the fruit is colored deep orange inside). We alternate bites of the mellow dish with crispy lumpiang Shanghai, a dozen petite egg rolls stuffed with spicy sausage, and sips of fresh strawberry milkshake.
I offer a spring roll to the baby -- a French friend of mine uses biscotti as a pacifier for her infant, so why not? -- but the girl is sleepy now and nestles down into her mother's bosom for a nap. It's time for Mom and me to go, we agree, though there's room in our bellies for another bite of chicken adobo, poultry in a lush marinade of soy sauce, vinegar and garlic. It's a simple sauce, but so thrilling.
New adobo smell. Now if a manufacturer could package that . . .