Ready for Prime Time?

For 100 years, Filipinos have been a major part of Hawai‘i. Is it time for their cuisine to go mainstream?
A fried daing, an ocean fish, swims on top of Julie’Z adobo fried rice. photo: Monte Costa

“People used to wrinkle up their noses at Filipino food. ‘Eww, I won’t eat that,’” says Domingo Los Baños. “It’s taken 25 years, but I think our time has finally come.”

His son, Roberto, disagrees. “Filipino food isn’t ready to go mainstream,” he says. “It’s comfort food, family-style food, but not fine dining. It doesn’t have the finesse to go prime time.”

I am having lunch with the Los Baños family, three generations, Domingo, Roberto and Roberto’s 12-year-old son, Lukela. Joining us is Domingo’s friend, Esperanza “Espy” Garcia, a fellow volunteer at the Hawai‘i Plantation Village, the living museum in Waipahu.

I’m here because I realized that, in 20 years of food writing, I’ve written only a single column devoted solely to Filipino food. And that was seven years ago.

It’s odd, but think about it: Even though only one out of 20 people in Hawai‘i is Chinese, there’s Chinese food everywhere. Three out of 20 people are Filipino, and yet Filipino restaurants are few and far between.

In the ’70s, food historian Judith Kirkendall argued that Filipino food never became a major cuisine in the Islands because so many Filipino plantation workers came to Hawai‘i as bachelors. Lacking women, they did not cook and eat as families, did not celebrate special occasions with traditional foods, did not, in short, establish a distinct food identity.

“That’s true,” says Domingo, who was raised on a plantation in the ’30s. “Those bachelors, I grew up with them. All they thought was fight chicken, gamble. All they ate was some sardines over the fire, and rice. They were poor.”

Still, as the centennial of Filipino immigration has reminded us, it’s been 100 years. As Domingo insists, Filipino food may have finally arrived.

The personal history of the Los Baños family itself seems to sum up much of the progress of Filipinos in Hawai‘i.

In 1906, Domingo’s father (Roberto’s grandfather, Lukela’s great-grandfather) joined the U.S. Navy in the Philippines. In California, an admiral’s wife took a shine to him, made him the admiral’s houseboy and encouraged him to attend Stanford. Then, in Hawai‘i, he studied at the University of Hawai‘i’s Pineapple Institute, meeting his wife at the P-alama Settlement.

Domingo himself was born in Waipahu. His father was that rarity, a Filipino luna, in charge of the experimental pineapple fields. His mother ran a plantation camp laundry. Both believed in education, but before Domingo could finish at UH, war broke out and he joined the American Army’s 1st Filipino Regiment.

“We made good on MacArthur’s ‘I shall return’ pledge,” he says. He was in the bloody mopping-up operations in the Philippines and pledged that, if he survived, he’d become a teacher. He became the second Filipino teacher in Hawai‘i, and the first Filipino principal and district superintendent.

Retired, he devotes himself to causes like the Hawai‘i Plantation Village and has been a Fulbright lecturer in Thailand. He was associate producer of the 2004 documentary, Untold Triumph, which commemorated the contributions of the 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments in World War II.

“My dad knows the historical stuff far better than I,” says Roberto. Roberto, on the other hand, knows food. He’s executive sous chef at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, with its seven restaurants and vast banquet operations. After high school, he began as a $4.25-an-hour prep cook at Orson’s, went to Johnson & Wales to learn his craft and cooked his way up the ladder.

We ended up at lunch, because I’d called Roberto to find out where he ate Filipino food. “My aunt’s house,” he insisted. “Filipino food is still home food.”

But if you had to go to a restaurant, where would you go?

“Kapolei,” he said. “If you want good Filipino food, you have to go to the West Side. I’ll meet you for lunch at Julie’Z. I’ll bring my father.”

By the time I arrived at Julie’Z, three generations of the Los Baños clan were already in place, along with Espy Garcia, whose reputation as a cook is so great that she once taught Alan Wong how to make pinakbet (Ilocano-style vegetables).

The Marketplace at Kapolei
91-590 Farrington Highway, Kapolei

Open daily 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday through Saturday until 10 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

Food began arriving immediately, served family-style. Julie’Z is a shopping-center restaurant, looking brand new, like everything else in Kapolei. Owner Julie Oasay was the cook at Elena’s Filipino Restaurant for 25 years. The Z at the end of the restaurant’s name is not a hip-hop affectation. It stands for her partner, Zenaida Pagdilao.

Nine dishes eventually reached the table. Let’s start with the one that most readily crosses cultures, lechon kewali. Lechon is roast pork, kewali means “cut up.”

Lechon doesn’t have the sweetness and five spice of Chinese roast pork, and it doesn’t fall into shreds like kälua pig. The key to great lechon seems to be a balancing of meat, fat and crackling. Every bite has both juiciness and crunch. The Julie’Z version comes heaped with tomatoes, onions, green onions. “Hawaiian style,” noted Roberto. You can dip it in a vinegar sauce, but it’s hard to imagine not liking it totally on its own.

“We’re going to do a banquet at the hotel for the Filipino centennial,” said Roberto. “I think I’ll put lechon on a Caesar salad. All the crunch of croutons and a lot more flavor.”

Among the other familiar dishes were chicken adobo and an adobo fried-rice omelet. “That was the breakthrough for Filipino food in the Islands,” says Domingo, pointing to the omelet. “All the policemen and firemen like to eat that for breakfast.”

The omelet was immediately commandeered by Lukela, who had been looking askance at some of the other dishes on the table. “You don’t much like Filipino food?” I asked him.

“I like Vietnamese food,” he said. “My mom’s Vietnamese.”

What really made Lukela shudder was the dinuguan, which is sometimes translated into the euphemism “chocolate meat.” The chocolate brown sauce coating the pork is made with pig’s blood, which almost every food culture except American eats. The Julie’Z dinguguan sauce perfectly balanced the thickness of the blood with the sharp bite of vinegar. I know I’m not going to convince anyone—I made no impression, for instance, on Lukela—but it was great.

New to me was the shrimp sarciado. “I grew up eating this,” said Roberto. “It’s got a lot of potential as a dish, a lot of Spanish influence.” Whole shrimp were sautéed in onion, tomatoes, garlic, with an egg dropped in at the last moment to thicken and enrich the sauce.

Roberto was right. With a little finesse, this is a dish ready for a restaurant plate. As it was at Julie’Z, it was a platter full of flavor and bright red colors. We made short work of the shrimp.

More challenging was the squid guisado. The Filipino version of sautéed squid is darker and more fishy-tasting than any calamari you’ve ever eaten. Garcia, who grew up in a Kaua‘i plantation camp, explained that there’s a dark layer of skin on a squid. Most food cultures peel it off, which is why squid looks nearly white. “But my mama never did,” said Garcia.

The Filipinos leave it on for flavor—that’s why the squid at Julie’Z looks almost purple. The strong flavor of the squid is balanced by tomato, onion, garlic, ginger, and it’s topped with ong choi.

Domingo almost applauded when the mongo beans arrived. Garcia, who doesn’t measure and cooks by taste and smell, explained how to make them correctly, dropping some dried shrimp in a hot pot until they smell wonderful, then adding onion, roast pork, water, beans and a little bagoong—a salted, fermented fish or shrimp paste. “Oh, use shrimp,” insisted Garcia.

The shrimp at Julie’Z come either in a rich, tomato-and-egg sauce, or as shown here, in a vibrant garlic sauce. photo: Monte Costa

I am fond of mongo beans. They taste much richer and smoother than Mainland-style pork and beans. But what really excited Domingo was the paria, the knobbly bitter melon, that Julie Oasay sliced and cooked with the beans. Bitter melon is, well, bitter, but soothed by the pork and beans it seemed acceptable enough.

“I eat bitter melon at least once a week,” said Domingo. “It’s good medicine. It lowers cholesterol. You know, doctors tell patients to eat Filipino food. You know why? Because Filipinos eat vegetables.”

That was certainly true of the sari sari. In Tagalog, the term sari sari is roughly equivalent to “any kine.” In Ilocano, the same dish is called inabraw. In either case, it’s a soup with a dried shrimp and salty, pungent fishsauce base. Once the base is browned, explained Garcia, most of liquid is produced by the vegetables. “On the plantation, we just used whatever we could grow, long beans, eggplant, tomato, onion, squash.”

“Roberto makes a great version of this,” said Domingo. “A pork and squash soup.”

“This broth is the element of Filipino cuisine which you really use in a hotel kitchen,” said Roberto. “It’s healthy, it’s got a lot of flavor without much weight. I use it a lot, to poach moi, to make spa dishes. It’s something that more chefs should know.”

At the meal’s end, Lukela perked up. He wanted dessert. He didn’t know what it was called. “On skewers, like at Grandma’s.”

We got cascaron, which are essentially Filipino doughnuts, except better than doughnuts. They are mochi flour balls, with plenty of pineapple and coconut, deep fried, served four on a skewer, glazed with sugar. I fail to see why they are not as famous as malassadas.

I tried to get the check, but since I was deemed a guest, I struck out. Julie’Z is quite reasonably priced, with dishes all in the $6 to $9 range. It is, as it indicates, Filipino homestyle cuisine, though, because it’s Hawai‘i, you can also get a teriyaki plate or a Spam-and-egg sandwich.

But the Filipino fare here, Garcia insisted, was both authentic and “scrumptious.”

A’s Bistro & Catering

I did much calling around to find where the best Filipino restaurants might be, and all the signs still pointed to West O‘ahu.

I was disappointed in A’s Bistro, especially after my long, tedious, rush-hour descent down Fort Weaver Road into ‘Ewa Beach.

91-1001 Kaimalie St., ‘Ewa Beach

Open Tuesday through Friday. 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

The pork adobo was fatty and far too salty. The squid guisado, which I’d come to like at Julie’Z, was soupy and fishy. We gave up about a third of the way through.

By far the best of our main dishes was the kari-kari, a peanut stew, reminiscent of Indonesian food, with oxtail and tripe. The oxtail was more bone than meat, but this was full of flavor, especially the dark shrimp paste that came on the side.

The best parts of the meal were the beginning and end. We began with vegetable and pork lumpia, nicely presented, still warm, ready to dip in a mix of vinegar and chili pepper water. These we finished.

And we enjoyed dessert. I kept noticing that steady stream of customers were taking out big cups that looked as if they were topped with a scoop of purple ice cream.

Finally, it dawned on me. Halo-halo—or, as the young waitress pointed out to us, it was their halohalo supreme. Supreme it turned out to be.

I suppose for every reader addicted to halo-halo, there might be one or two who have never had one. So if the initiated will be patient with me, a halo-halo is an ice cream sundae, but not quite. This one came topped with two ice creams, one made from a yam called ube in Tagalog, hence the purple color, and the other from a variety of coconut called macapuno.

But the ice cream is not entirely the point. It sits atop a tall, clear glass of crushed ice, milk and sugar. Eating a halo-halo is like a treasure hunt. Hidden away in the ice are all sorts of goodies—sweet beans, mango and other fruits and some little chewy jellies made from agar agar and sugar palm. You probe around with your spoon and you never know what you’ll find.

Cold, sweet and an adventure—what more could you ask from a dessert?

Dinner for two was $41 with tip, though we ordered perhaps more than two people normally would. There were entrées left over, we just didn’t wish to take them.

As a side note, you can bring your own liquor. I’d brought along a bottle of Gruner Veltliner, an Austrian white wine. It wasn’t a thought-out food and wine pairing. As I ran out the door, there happened to be a bottle cold in the refrigerator. Still, it worked fine, as European soft whites often do with Asian food.

Mililani Golf Club Restaurant

After my ‘Ewa Beach experience, I have to admit I was skeptical when my friend Allan Nebrija suggested I drive to Mililani and eat at a golf course restaurant.

95-176 Kuahelani Ave., Mililani

Open daily 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

Fortunately, I swallowed my skepticism long enough to get out onto the H-2.

The Mililani Golf Course Restaurant isn’t much to look at—beer signs, white plastic lawn chairs, lots of golfers drinking Heineken and eating chicken wings. The menu is largely American food—rib-eye steaks, even some fresh fish specials. But the chef is 69-year-old Filemon Garon, who began cooking more than 40 years ago at Clark Air Force Base in the Philipines. On the side, he cooks up about half-a-dozen Filipino specialties.

The waitress warned us that the Filipino food was cooked to order, and took 20 to 30 minutes.

It didn’t take quite that long, and Garon’s dishes turned out to be staggeringly good. The pork adobo was fork-tender, well-trimmed squares of pork in a sauce that was very close to a brown gravy. Not too much vinegar, not too much shoyu, a judicious amount of garlic, but an assertive sprinkling of cracked black pepper.

The pancit was also a thing of beauty. The golden yellow noodles, colored with achiote (an orange-red seed), were topped with bright-red shrimp. The flavor was delicate, an undercurrent of garlic and green onion, bits of carrot and roast pork.

From his childhood, Garon remembered fried pata and worked to recreate the recipe. He boils a ham hock, soaks it in shoyu, then deep-fries it. It’s a giant serving of crackling pork—crunchy, fatty and delicious. Ever had fried pork rinds in a bag? OK, now imagine them a hundred times better.

The sari sari is made to order at Mililani Golf Club’s Restaurant. photo: Monte Costa

At this point we needed some vegetables, so I was pleased I had ordered the sari sari. This emerged last, as Garon cooks it an individual portion at a time, sautéing the pork, then simmering it with okra, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, long beans and kabocha pumpkin. All the vegetables are alive with flavor, especially the pumpkin. It’s the world’s best vegetable soup.

There were four of us at dinner, sort of. I’d called a friend who lived in Mililani and she’d arrived with her two small children. “Everybody in Mililani has children,” she said. “I think it’s a requirement.”

That left two adults eating what was clearly a dinner for four hungry people.

To give you an idea of the atmosphere, the waitress offered to hold my friend’s baby while she ate. Then the golfer at the next table, who said he was ready for grandchildren, spent much time engaging the baby in one of those smiles-noises-and-funny-faces conversations.

My friend’s 6-year-old found a school friend at another table. He didn’t like the look of the Filipino food, so I ended up ordering him a platter of chicken wings, which he felt was appropriate sustenance.

The atmosphere and food were total pleasures. I inquired about wine and the bartender had to rummage in the back of the refrigerator before she found a bottle, recorked. I settled for beer.

From the $60 dinner, we left with three bags full of takeout containers, which I split with my friend. She called me the next night at dinner time. “We’re eating the leftovers,” she said, with more excitement than that proclamation usually elicits. “You know what? They’re still great!”