Eat That Turo-Turo, White Boy!

Photo by James BunoanA recent article on lamented the anonymity of Filipino cuisine in this country. "We would say our food is so good and can be compared with other kinds of cuisine, and yet the American mainstream has not accepted our cooking," wrote the anonymous author. "Why? Could it be that our restaurants cater to Filipinos only? Is it the ambiance, or that the turo-turo style may be not acceptable to a lot of non-Filipinos who prefer sit-down dinners?"

It's probably the latter. Truly adventurous diners the world over are never put off by ethnicity; they leap over the hurdles of language, skin color, stink and even outright rudeness. But lack of menus is another story.

Turo-turo joints—the phrase means "point-point"—are basically Filipino cafeterias: patrons grab a tray, point at the items on an unlabelled buffet they want served in a Styrofoam plate, and devour. There are generally no menus, a fact that understandably intimidates some restaurant-goers.

At least in theory, turo-turo and this cowardly culinary county shouldn't mesh. But these dives thrive in OC because they appeal to the county's 50,000-plus Filipino community, which appreciates the faithfully reproduced fast-food tradition of their homeland and doesn't require servers to wait on them hand and foot. Turo-turos weather the absence of non-Pinoys just fine, thank you very much.

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The bulk of those eating at Ellen's Pinoy Grille in La Palma are Filipinos, workers dressed in uniforms who walk in during lunch breaks and leave with cartons of komida for fellow employees.But Ellen's also attracts many non-Filipinos, perhaps because Ellen's offers a menu—a list of all 70 entrées, 10 of them available at any time in the always-steaming buffet. The point-point ordering is still necessary since each item comes without a tag, but the friendly staff always announces the selection and will explain its ingredients to the curious.

Ellen's typifies the egalitarian nature of the turo-turo tradition. The expansive eatery is elegant, with sunlight pouring through large windows onto a gleaming tile floor and wicker furniture. There are two televisions—one set to a Filipino channel, the other to English-language American for the assimilated kiddies. Next to an elfin Elvis statue is a karaoke machine that blares Tagalog sing-alongs every evening.

Do not confuse turo-turo with the stale offerings at your neighborhood Hometown Buffet. Ellen's hauls out fresh offerings regularly. No Filipino feast is complete without a network of pancit noodles, whether they are tiny bihon, fat palabok or savory sotanghon. Similarly ubiquitous is the fabulous daing na bangus, a milkfish stew marinated with garlic and cucumbers and cooked in a searing coconut-and-soy-sauce broth. Six different types of lumpias—the thin-skinned, finger-sized Filipino take on egg rolls—lie hidden beneath the counter. All incarnations—the fried-to-nirvana Shanghai lumpia, especially—fall delicately apart in your mouth.

Ask for by-request specialties not found in the ever-changing buffet, especially the seafood paella loaded with more mussels, prawns, lobsters and salt than an Iberian could ever desire. Continue the hungry homage to the Philippines' colonial masters with any of the adobos—meats simmered with garlic so potent it'll melt metal. Try to bite into the light longanisa sausage without thinking of chorizo.

Purely Filipino, however, is Ellen's Famous Sisig, comprised of grilled pig's cheeks and ears; chopped with chicken liver, onions, chiles and pepper; and served sizzling. It renews my belief that the most reviled animals parts are the tastiest.

Ellen's Pinoy Grille, 7971 Valley View St., La Palma, (714) 522-8866. Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $12, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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