Only a few dishes in all of Filipino food, an under-appreciated and misunderstood cuisine in the States if ever there was one, can be said to have crossed over. It could be argued that adobo has made it, and perhaps also the crispy, taquito-thin egg rolls called lumpia shanghai. Neither, however, have yet to enjoy the kind of popularity on the scale of kung pao or teriyaki.
If you ask me to predict what will be next, I'll say that coming up close behind these two, and maybe posed to overtake them, is sisig, a melange of meat (usually pork) chopped to bits, soured by citrus juice or vinegar, tossed with diced onions and peppers.
And if it will be sisig, I'm sure it will be the rendition that's the translated and sanitized version. It will not contain any of the off-cuts of jowl, chewy pig's ear and pieces of snout that the original model from Pampanga features.
But in today's edition of Dueling Dishes we compare the dish as it is served at Grill of The Orient in Anaheim versus the one at Ellen's Pinoy Grille in La Palma.
First about the restaurants themselves: Both are notably large despite the fact that they're usually deserted during the day and on week nights. On Friday and Saturday evenings the two transform to karaoke dens, filling itself up with song warblers of all ages, but mostly Filipino. Both have stages, microphones and speakers for the Charice Pempengco hopeful.
Aside from the karaoke, the two eateries share more differences than similarities. Grill of the Orient displays an alarming amount of Lakers' pennants and paraphernalia. Ellen's Pinoy Grille worships Elvis with only slightly less enthusiasm.
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And as far as the sisig, Grill of the Orient's dish features the most unapologetic version of the dish, containing pork belly, pig ears and snout, all tossed in together with onions and peppers. The pieces of snout and pig ears have a cartilage-y appeal, not apt to be chewed, but rather gnawed. The pork belly exists in jelly-clear nubs, the fat still room-temperature solid because the sizzling plate that's supposed to create a searing brown crust isn't quite hot enough to do the job. And then there's the raw egg cracked into the middle of it all that only saps the precious heat of the hot plate even more. It's a chewy, challenging meal, requiring plenty of liquid courage from glasses of San Miguel beer or something equally inebriating to finish (the way the dish is usually consumed in the old country).
On the other hand, Ellen's Pinoy Grille's version is one you can bring home to your white-meat-loving mother. It's fatty, but not cloying, consisting of mainly of meat scraps and skin, crisped up and chopped up (I think) from another Filipino delicacy, the deep fried pork belly known as lechon kawale. There is no snout, no pigs ear, and as such, no hot plate on which it needs to be heated. The dish is served turo-turo style from chafing dishes, and usually as a part of a combo plate with two scoops of rice that you can take home as your dinner. The souring agent they use perks up your appetite to eat more than you probably should. This is as addictive as sisig gets.
Though these two dishes are called sisig; they are worlds apart. One is a harder sell with the acquired taste of haggis; the other is as normal as bacon-based breakfast. As such it would be unfair to declare a winner. But if you ask me which will sisig will break through to become the next great Filipino dish to cross over, it's Ellen's. It's also the one I'm craving right about now.
Ellen's Pinoy Grille, 7971 Valley View St., La Palma, CA 90623, (714) 522-8866.
Grill of the Orient, 2806 W. Ball., Anaheim, CA 92804, (714) 484-4686.