Most Filipino restaurants serve food the way mom used to--with a casual disregard for presentation, set on the table in still-steaming pots and platters. So what better place to begin exploring the cuisine than in a Filipino home?
LTHer Sharon Bautista recently hosted a group of folks from LTHForum up in Evanston for a spread of Filipino faves. One of the tastiest foods I've ever had--that's right, ever--is the lechon kawali she served, lush nuggets of pork belly first boiled and then fried and traditionally served with a liver sauce. If you're not lucky enough to know a Filipino family that will have you over for dinner, Cid's Ma Mon Luk (9182 Golf Road, Niles, 847-803-3652) also serves up a delicious version, the pork coppery, crunchy, and punched up with the vinegary dipping sauce. At Cid's you can also get siopao, a meat-filled steamed bun, which I liked but may be an acquired taste--my companion found the shell mucilaginous and the meat stringy. A dish most people would probably find more accessible is beef caldereta, a pot roast sprinkled with sausage slices in a mildly piquant tomato sauce: comfort food epitomized.
Grace Delcano, the Filipina owner/pit mistress/dishwasher of Galewood Cookshack, serves Carolina-style pulled pork sandwiches and nachos from a tricked-out 1993 Ford Tioga motor home at the Logan Square Farmers' Market, carrying on what she describes as the Filipino tradition of "meat, meat, meat." She seems to exaggerate only slightly when she says there are "almost no vegetables in the food of the Philippines." But her favorite home-style Filipino dish is pancit (noodles studded with veggies, available at most Filipino restaurants).
There also doesn't seem to be a lot of fish in Filipino food, though at Fishpond (4416 N. Clark, 773-271-1119) you'll find a decent range of seafood preparations, including panfried butterfish and milkfish as well as very tasty coconut shrimp. Of course, there's also a lot of meat, with Pinoy pork classics well represented, among them dinuguan, a somewhat daunting dish of pork belly in chocolate-dark pork blood.
One major exception to Delcano's axiom is mungo, a stew of mung beans, shrimp, tomatoes, and watercress you can sample at Isla Pilipina (2501 W. Lawrence, 773-271-2988). Though the vegetables are stewed beyond recognition, there's an unmistakable earthy flavor to this dish.
A traditional meat preparation of memorable deliciousness is kare-kare: toothsome chunks of oxtail in peanut sauce perked up by crisp green beans and sweet eggplant. Bautista prepared this dish with shreds of tripe, though her mother was disappointed that she ground the peanuts for the sauce by hand--nowadays apparently everyone in the Philippines uses something closer to Skippy peanut butter. At La Filipiniana (9060 Golf, Niles, 847-298-9332) we had a tripeless version. Also available were tokwat baboy, a blend of boiled tofu and gummy, gelatinous thin-sliced pig's ear in a soy sauce with vinegar; a sizzling platter of pork jowls; and pata, fried pig's hoof.
GIs stationed in the Philippines during WWII introduced Spam and the all-American hot dog to the country. Tapsilog at Iba Pa (2739 W. Touhy, 773-338-6961) specializes in Filipino foods with the suffix -silog, which denotes a dish constructed on a basic platform of rice (si) and over-easy egg (log), similar to the Korean bi bim bop. Tapsilog is beef, but there are also versions with cured pork (tosilog), chicken (chiksilog), and hot dog (hotsilog). We opted for the pork, which was complemented by a side of sweet fried plantains and tomato and presented on a banana leaf.
For a crash course in Pinoy cuisine, you'd do well to try one of many Chicagoland buffets. Uni-Mart (5845 N. Clark, 773-271-8676) offers all things Filipino, including candy, soap, produce, and Southeast Asian hot dogs--plus a generous hot table. Inside Uni-Mart is another store, Original Baker's Delight, specializing in baked goods that are frequently consumed at merienda, or "fourth meal," a between-meal snack relished throughout the Philippines.
You'd expect a place called Adobo Express (5343 N. Lincoln, 773-293-2363) to prepare its signature dish well, and this little strip-mall joint delivers. Filipino adobo--typically a mixture of black pepper, soy, vinegar, and frequently Sprite--is used to dress meat, its acids balancing and sugars enhancing fat. Other items here are decidedly odd--Spam and Velveeta baked in a bun?--but at this well-kept storefront you can score nibbles of multiple items, from rich stews to noodle casseroles and, yes, meat many ways. --David Hammond
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tapsilog at Iba Pa photo by A. Jackson; Philippines map by Godrey Carmona.