Six years ago, when I first came to town, I asked a friend who'd been living here since 1974 for some pointers. Where's a good neighborhood to live? Where's a good bookstore? Where's a good ethnic restaurant?
For housing he took us over by the Phoenix Mountains Preserve beyond the Dreamy Draw, a wonderful location. For books he drove us to Changing Hands, a great place to browse in Tempe. Then he sent us to eat at an awful Chinese restaurant in downtown Phoenix.
When I looked at my chop suey plate--about the most exotic offering--I almost started to weep. After the first bite of gristly meat and canned vegetables, I was ready to reload the U-Haul and move back to California.
Earthquakes, traffic, crime, smog, mudslides and sky-high car insurance rates suddenly didn't seem so bad, after all. To me, the availability of good ethnic food has always been a critical quality-of-life issue.
So what if my kids had to duck bullets on the way to their Los Angeles elementary school? At least we could celebrate the gangs' poor marksmanship with a decent ethnic meal.
But we stuck it out here, and I'm glad we did. The Valley is caught up in a terrific ethnic-restaurant boom. In just the past year, two cuisines formerly unknown to Phoenix, Laotian and Brazilian, have made their way here. And now, two new places, offering authentic bargain-priced fare from the Philippines and Taiwan, look like they'll also be boosting our quality of life.
Early this summer, Oriental Gourmet moved into the site last occupied by Giorgio's Italian Restaurant. Divided into three cozy dining areas, it's small, spare and bare. Contrary to the usual ethnic-restaurant-decorating pattern, there are almost no artifacts from the Philippine homeland. The Popeye and Olive Oyl dolls on the rest-room doors are the most distinctive decor touch.
But this is no run-down ethnic shack. Linen tablecloths and cloth napkins create a small touch of elegance. And someone will come by and light the candle on the table.
The friendly family that operates Oriental Gourmet is eager to guide first-timers through the mysteries of Philippine fare. They explain the dishes carefully, and even provide tastes. Good thing--nothing in other Asian cuisines quite prepares you for what you'll find here.
That's because Spanish and Malay flavors figure heavily in Filipino fare. Different, exotic, even strange, this food may take some getting used to. But persistence has its rewards.
One of the easier ways to get acclimated is to start off with fried Shanghai lumpia, bite-size egg rolls stuffed with meat that you dip into a sweet and sour sauce. Much more interesting, however, is Lumpiang Sariwa. Here, the vegetable, pork and chicken filling is enfolded by an egg-roll wrapper that undergoes no further cooking. It's almost like a crepe, topped by ground peanuts and submerged in a sweet sauce. More timid souls probably will prefer nibbling skewers of tasty marinated pork, served over fried rice.
Cagey menu readers can usually tell when a dish might be a little too "authentic" for their tastes. Estopadong dila, thin slices of sauted ox tongue, could fall into this category. So could kambing, chunks of goat meat affixed to the bone, simmered in a strong-flavored sauce studded with olives.
But the menu description of crispy pata might trick the unwary. It's innocuously called "pork leg simmered in its own juices and a special marinade, then deep-fried to a golden brown." Actually, it looks like something rescued from a caveman campfire, enormous hunks of hacked-up, bone-in leg meat. But after the initial confrontation, folks shouldn't have trouble dealing with the familiar pork flavors.
You don't have to be a native Tagalog speaker to appreciate the charms of the relleno chicken. It's got universal appeal: chicken stuffed with seasoned ground beef, steamed and deep-fried to crispy perfection. (The menu says the bird is boneless. It's not.)
Morcon, stuffed rolled beef, owes more to Spain than the Far East. Local carnivores should be pleased. Flank steak is rolled up with a hot dog and hard-boiled egg, cut into slices and deep-fried. A thick meat sauce embellished with lots of onions provides some finishing punch.
The Malay influence--coconut--appears in guinataang shrimp, a dish that sports real ethnic flair. A dozen whole shrimp, with head and shell attached, are cooked with squash and Chinese long beans in an offbeat, creamy coconut sauce. At $7, it's a cheap and filling way to get your crustacean thrills.
Noodle fans will find happiness in pancit dishes. There's no risk at all in pancit bibon, thin rice noodles studded with chicken and pork. But pancit palabok is a lot more complex, a seafood dish in a smoky, fish-flavored sauce that requires a certain amount of perseverance to appreciate.