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Sawali Grill: Flipping Reputations

[Hole In the Wall] This Anaheim restaurant offers Filipino food in its delicious iterations

Have I told this story before? I'm sure I have, but it's so important that I'll repeat it. There's a prominent Southern California food critic—whose name I won't reveal so as to not fully shame him or her—who once told a Filipina friend of mine that there was nothing worthwhile about her culture's meals. Adobo? Bleh. Halo-halo? Stolen from the Chinese. Pancit? The same. This is a person famous for a love of nearly everything, who's not a bad critic despite being a mainstream-media voice—and every time I remember this anecdote, my regard for that person goes down just a little.

But doesn't that critic look the fool now! Filipino cuisine is finally achieving widespread acclaim, with Filipino-American chefs manning more kitchens across Southern California and working their grub into high-dining conversations: Witness the adobo chicken wings—saucy, garlicky stunners—offered by Jason "Chicken Wang" Montelibano over at Chapter One: The Modern Local. It's a style that will continue to influence Southern California cooking in the years to come, but we can thankfully still taste the original ways at the many turo-turo buffets that sprang up around Orange County during the 1990s and continue to thrive and multiply. So while we wait for a Filipino young gun to open a full-fledged spot in honor of his or her traditions (as opposed to dishes with said traditions), we should still visit the old-school charms of places such as Sawali Grill.

Our art critic Dave Barton chose it as the Best Filipino Restaurant for our Best Of issue this year, and while I wouldn't have made the same choice (my heart and gut belong to Kapit Bahay), I didn't dispute it. Sawali Grill is a grand carousel of Filipino standards, from fried milkfish to squid cooked in its own ink to skewers of meat and trays bubbling with a frightening array of meats and vegetables that hit your palate with a furious jolt of flavors. The dishes are rotated according to demand, and Sunday brings lechon and pata, gnarled masses of fried pork oozing with fat. As with most turo-turo joints, don't bother asking for a menu—just point at what looks delicious.

If you ask for the names of dishes, workers respond in a bemused tone—don't take it personally. And it's that casual, almost insider ambiance, I feel, that ultimately turned off that Filipino-demeaning writer. Whatever: Sawali and its peers offer Southern California's next great cuisine—get with the program and point, or get relegated to raving about Rick Bayless anew.

 
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2 comments
BBain
BBain

Dude - my wife is Filipino and I'm a "gabacho" as you would put it.  I can personally attest to the fact that Filipino food is nasty.  I've choked down a few bites to be polite over the years.  I've eaten Filipino food at the wife's family and friends' houses and in the Philippines and it all has one thing in common - it's f***ing gross!

 
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