The itch to cook good Filipino food led me and three friends to drive to Union City (California) last weekend. The goal was to grocery shop for ingredients at Island Pacific, an Asian market. But first, we had to satisfy our craving for a Filipino lunch, so we stopped at Lechon Manila.
The dishes were not spectacular or elaborate, but simple and authentic – the criteria for food craved by four very hungry people. Explaining to our Japanese friend that we were going the “turo-turo” cafeteria style, we demonstrated the pointing system of indicating to the servers choices from an array of food offerings laid behind the counter. The challenge was describing to the non-Filipino what the dishes were or what they contained. How could we possibly soft pedal describing “dinuguan” (meat cooked in pork blood), to entice the Japanese friend who had never seen nor eaten it before?
Lunch was no disappointment at all. Our group enjoyed the upo (squash) sautéed with tomatoes, onions and garlic, the heavily sauced menudo mix of pork, potatoes and carrots, the mongo bean soup, pancit bihon (noodles), the “binagoongan” pork (cooked with “bagoong” of salty shrimp fry), and of course, the restaurant’s signature dish of lechon (roasted pork). It was quiet for a while as we gobbled up, but the three of us were most curious about the Japanese’ reaction to dinuguan, its chocolate colored sauce curdled around small slices of cooked pork meat, intestines and tripe, spiced with chili pepper. She loved it! For me, it was one of the best dinuguan I had eaten.
The lechon was the center piece, one pound of roasted pork with its shiny brown crispy skin scattered on top of the dish, almost like a decor. We were enticed. We immediately claimed lechon pieces as soon as the plate was set on our table. I craved for this – eagerly reached out for the malutong (crispy) skin and .dipped it in the richly flavored liver sauce. It was fantastic! I barely touched the meat of the lechon, which my companions said was good. Like an eager beaver, I literally flipped with delight as I crunched on the malutong balat (skin). Cravings!
The hefty lunch made it difficult to get up from our seats and continue on to Island Pacific for our groceries, the real intent for our Union City trip. But off we drove to the market. Separately, we embarked on our slow journey on the grocery store aisles. I started my hunt with a resolve to stick to my list. It turned out, I doubled the items on my list. Often, that happens whenever I visit a grocery store far away. My justification is – “I better get the items now because it’s seldom that I come here”. A lame excuse, I admit, especially with goodies like pork chicharron with laman (meat), or suman (sticky rice) wrapped in banana leaves, or hopia (rounded pastries filled with red mongo beans), or pichy-pichy (baked glutinous rice flour topped with thin coconut shreds and a sprinkle of white sugar). Did I really need them? No, but I like them, and I don’t find them anywhere close to my place. Cravings!
The true purpose for going to the Union City Asian market was to buy ingredients for lumpia (fried egg roll), especially the original Simex wrapper. But I also got frozen lumpia Shanghai, a medium sized package of yummy quick-to fry small rolls of ground pork, for snack or entre. Added to my packed cart was a package of siopao (bao – rounded pocket of baked or steamed rice flour with meat filling) – these, I told my companions, were not for me but for my sister and her husband. Though I actually craved for siopao, too.
It was a fun and fulfilling (I mean “filling”) trip to Union City in the East Bay that Saturday afternoon, thanks to our cravings. But why Union City? Around one-third of the city’s population are Filipinos. Thus, the plethora of Filipino restaurants and stores. And the big Asian markets carry varied and vast supplies of ingredients needed for preparing Philippine cuisine. There will be similar trips again in the future, as long as I can get our friend to drive my car on the freeways. Or just maybe, I’ll be motivated to gather enough confidence to drive on freeways – and go to Union City to satisfy my food cravings. – or at the very least, buy that warm lechon with the crispy shiny brown skin!