The Pinoy Path
Don’t believe Los Angeles: The true Filipinotown in Southern California is the swath of communities along Highway 91, clustered around the Orange County-Los Angeles County Mason-Dixon line. In Artesia and Cerritos, within Anaheim, La Palma and Buena Park live thousands of Pinoy who operate dozens of businesses, chief among them the Southland’s best Filipino restaurants: Magic Wok, Kapit Bahay, Ellen’s Pinoy Grille, Filipino Express and the fast-food chain Jollibee.
Add Manila Grille to this list. It’s one of the more bizarre Filipino restaurants I’ve visited. Instead of occupying a strip mall like so many of its peers, this small joint is on Knott Avenue, far from other similar businesses, in a building with a freestanding sign that recalls the roadside stand that made Walter and Cordelia millions. Its website lists directions and a picture of the sign. And like virtually every Filipino restaurant in the United States, Manila Grille is a turo-turo joint—a buffet of luxury, surprises and enough intrigue to scare off most non-Filipino eaters.
If you want to stick with the safe, start with Manila Grille’s excellent take on Pinoy standards: gummy pansit bihon noodles, vermicelli-like strands cooked with chopped-up celery, carrots and shrimp; glistening longanizas, one of the sweetest sausages in the culinary world; fried whole fish or pork legs, as decadently sweet as the oiliest chicharrón; sinigang, a type of rice soup flavored with tamarind. They also serve a dish that reminds me of Mexican picadillo—ground beef sautéed with veggies; I’m not sure of its name here, but it’s easily identifiable and delicious. Really, the best approach to take is just pointing at a steam tray and trying whatever is inside—hell, even that weird stew with the baby squid will please. Although the buffet trays may not list the name of a particular dish, the friendly line workers will not only tell you the name, but also recite the ingredients to allay any fears.
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Once you’ve learned the beauty of the Pinoy path, graduate to the more “exotic” dishes. Americans seem to loathe blood-based dishes such as bún bò hue, blood sausage and black pudding, and just describing dinuguan—pork blood simmered with garlic and innards until it turns into a murky gravy some Filipinos have lovingly nicknamed “chocolate meat”—will gross out most eaters. Get over it, and enjoy Manila Grille’s rendition, bringing the savory pleasure that only offal can provide. A bit “safer” is kare-kare, an oxtail stew simmered in peanut sauce but cut with lime juice—as delicious as it sounds. And if you decide on the sisig, the haggis of the Philippines complete with crispy pig ears, may God rain churros upon your days.
Manila Grille at 7635 Knott Ave., Buena Park, (714) 739-2888; www.manilagrille.com.