By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Like every Orange County Filipino restaurant I've visited, MANILA FOOD MART in Lake Forest is a turo-turo ("point-point" in Filipino) place, which means all entrees sit in an ever-changing, ever-steaming buffet -- and you point at 'em. A mound of white rice on a Styrofoam plate is the only constant -- that and the duck eggs next to the cash register. But Manila Food Mart keeps a semblance of order amid this atmosphere of rotating trays and garlic-vinegar-heavy tastes and smells. One section of the buffet usually features something fried -- if it's not crispy pata (a gnarled pig leg that gushes warm fat when you bite into its chicharron-style skin), it's a golden-brown whole tilapia or a batch of lumpias, egg rolls stuffed with ground pork, bean sprouts and other vegetables. Cooks prepare at least one meat -- chicken, pork, beef or even baby squid -- as an adobo, a long marination process that soaks the flesh with a torrid garlic, soy sauce and vinegar. Pork anything is also a regular here -- the skewers of barbecued pork lightly painted with a luscious sauce are as good as those in any Anaheim kebab house -- but I'm partial to the beef meals. Especially the kare-kare: a swampy oxtail-and-squash soup whose secret ingredient is half a cup of creamy peanut butter.
But every turo-turo joint offers the same meals; Manila Food Mart differentiates itself by hawking various products, from such Filipino garb as handbags and barongs (an ornate, light long-sleeved shirt similar to the Caribbean guayabera) to a freezer stocked with ready-to-eat meals such as bags of plump, sugary longansina pork sausages. You'll find shelves of Filipino-specific condiments, including a banana sauce that looks like ketchup but is as sweet as jam. Best are the packs of sweets with Spanish names -- polvorones are really marzipans made with ube (sweet purple yam) flour; lengua de gato (cat's tongue) is a sort of sugared saltine; and the unfortunately named puto is actually a scrumptious rice cake. And while all Filipino restaurants fry turons -- bananas wrapped with egg roll paper -- few do it as delectably as Manila Food Mart, which dusts each burrito-big turon with brown sugar so that the interior caramelizes just so: the epitome of sweet.
MANILA FOOD MART, 24601 RAYMOND WAY, #10, LAKE FOREST, (949) 461-0113; WWW.MANILAFOODMART.COM.