Have you noticed that whenever I write about a Filipino restaurant, I'm not just reviewing the food, service and ambience; I'm also presenting a defense and a primer on the cuisine itself? I do this because despite Filipinos representing the largest Asian population in California (yes, larger than Chinese and Vietnamese), most of you reading still don't have any idea that adobo is a cooking method or that sinigang is a sour soup to be doused over rice.
It's as if the food came from Mars instead of the group of islands just to the east of Vietnam. One of my theories is that most non-Pinoys form their first impressions of the cuisine at turo-turo restaurants, where the dishes are dumped into chafing trays that not only amplify some of its peculiarities, but also ruin the presentation. And lately I've realized something else: in spite of the occasional news article pronouncing that the cuisine is just on the cusp of breaking out, Filipino food has largely been ignored and even shunned by major newspaper restaurant critics as though it wasn't worthy of their tastebuds or ink.
This is the uphill battle that all Filipino eateries face. Most seem resigned to cater to only the people of their country. But for every dozen of those, there is a Ryan Garlitos—a young chef inspired by his grandmother's Filipino cooking and mentored by Taco Maria's Carlos Salgado—who is putting himself and his food out there for the widest possible audience. Last year he started Irenia, an itinerant pop-up he named in honor of his lola. Its success led him to this newest project: Irenia as a brick-and-mortar in the space vacated by the North Left in Downtown Santa Ana.
At his new restaurant, Garlitos doesn't waste any time throwing the non-Pinoy into the deep end of the pool. One of his starters is dilis, tiny dried anchovies he deep-fries and serves as finger food. And it packs a punch—every piece of fish a crunchy shard that disintegrates in the mouth, dipped into a lip-puckering bowl of spicy vinegar. It's a proud proclamation that Filipino cuisine favors the sharp, the fishy and the sour—and so should you.
While your head spins from its greatness, Garlitos lobs another sour dish with his sinigang, the classic tamarind-soured soup that's usually eaten as a meal with rice. This rendition, though, is designed as a soup. And since you're supposed to sip it straight up, he dials down the acidity and turns up the sweetness. He also serves it with charred snake beans and daikon radish that give the soup a slight smokiness, each vegetable cut to fit onto a soupspoon.
For now, apart from the three starters, Irenia only has four small plates and two entrees. Cauliflower is prepared as a sort of stir-fry with the indigenous fermented shrimp paste called bagoong as a flavoring agent, a sprinkling of toasted sunflower seeds, and slices of mandarinquat (a hybrid of a kumquat and mandarin) you eat rinds and all. It's an interpretation of a Filipino dish I've never had before, but so was the pancit, which is as saucy as spaghetti, uses yellow noodles like chow mein, and possesses a pronounced shrimp flavor that Garlitos extracts from the heads of a few Santa Barbara ridgeback shrimp he also includes whole.
Not surprisingly, Garlitos' best dish is the adobo. It nods to tradition with the flavors of garlic, vinegar and soy thoroughly seeped into the plank of pork belly, but also takes some liberties. Garlitos reduces the sauce until it glazes the meat as though a barbecued rib. But his crowning touch is the addition of ginisang monggo, a traditional Pinoy mung bean dish. This means that when you order Garlitos' adobo, you're actually getting two Filipino meals in one.
If you're still too new to Filipino food to invest $18 for the adobo during dinner, come at lunch when Garlitos shaves off $7 and delivers it in a rice bowl. He also offers a tender annatto-flavored chicken bowl called inasal that's served with citrus-spiked vegetables. The best rice bowl, though, has to be his kare-kare—cauliflower and green beans cooked with peanut sauce and the stinky feet-smell of more bagoong. But do come for dinner. That's when Ashley Guzman—who was previously the pastry chef for the North Left—shines with her modern spins on Filipino sweets such as a deconstructed calamansi pie and halo-halo. Her desserts are some of the best in Orange County, period.
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Still, I don't envy the job Garlitos and Guzman have ahead of them. Their role is a constant balancing act of introducing not-so-easy-to-translate ingredients like polvoron and milkfish to the masses before they can go full Pinoy. Someday they can. It'll be the time when "sinigang" rolls off your tongue as easily as "carne asada" and the waitress at Irenia won't have to ask her customers, "Have you had Filipino food before?"
Irenia, 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (657) 245-3466; www.ireniarestaurant.com. Open Tues.-Wed., 5:30-10 p.m.; Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. Full bar.