Imagine if the only place you could get a burger was the drive-thru, or if the only Chinese restaurant around was Panda Express. If you are a Filipino-food lover in OC, this is the quandary you face: Unless you intend to cook it yourself, eating adobo here means you're likely to get it from a chafing dish at that curious genre known as turo-turo ("point-point," in Tagalog), a glorified buffet. Absent are the cook-to-order Filipino restaurants that residents of Cerritos and Artesia readily enjoy; OC is the land of the point-point joint.
It could be argued, though, that some Filipino dishes are actually well-suited for the turo-turo treatment. Since a low simmer allows vinegar, soy and garlic to seep into the chunks of fatty pork, adobo lends itself well to the steam table. Yet, if you ever find yourself in a rarely traversed turo-turo restaurant, you'll discover that even the adobo will suffer the consequences of being ignored and sitting out too long.
The new Pinoy Pam's Best in Lake Forest is a turo-turo like the rest, but it has the immediate advantage of turnover. Come any day—but particularly Sunday—and a line of customers ensures supplies are constantly replenished. Having recently escaped the slow death sentence that is the Laguna Hills Mall food court, Pinoy Pam's Best traveled up a few blocks to take over a space complete with a dining area and a stage for karaoke, easily five times its old footprint. With the move, Pinoy Pam's has been revitalized to finally become not only a real restaurant, but also OC's undisputed turo-turo heavyweight.
Pinoy Pam's Best. Open daily, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Two-item combo plate, $5.99. Cash only. No alcohol.
In Pam's trays are dishes that even some of the best-regarded Filipino restaurants in Artesia and Cerritos haven't the gumption to attempt. One day, I saw bopis, a sauté of pig hearts and lungs that could be called the haggis of the Philippines if the analogy didn't already apply to so many other Pinoy delicacies. Familiar classics are here, too: ox tail simmered in peanut butter for a lamentably bland kare kare, a string bean-loaded sauté of veggies called pinakbet, and an adobo in which slow-cooked, fat-rimmed chunks of pork belly are embellished with fried potatoes. Next to the chafing trays, a selection of fried items warms under heat lamps. Caveman-sized hunks of deep-fried, bone-in pork legs called crispy pata dwarf the daintier cubes of fried pork belly known as lechon kawale.
Usually, there are three options of fried fish to balance out the fried pork offerings. If it's available, always take the daing na bangus—marinated, boneless filets of deep-fried milkfish blessed with an immutable tang—over the comparatively boring choices of salmon, tilapia or pomfret. Shun even that if jeprox is on the table. These golden, paper-thin swoops of salted, crisply fried dried sole resemble fossils and are usually packaged in clear to-go containers, ready to be eaten like chips, bones and all. The jeprox are an ideal accompaniment to the soups, most especially the sinigang, a fatty pork-enriched and tamarind-soured broth that you use to moisten rice. Nilaga—a simple beef soup riddled with potatoes, onions and carrots—is also meant to be poured over rice, spoonful by spoonful. By the time you encounter a hearty stew of mung beans, bitter melon and shrimp called ginisang munggo, you realize rice goes with everything.
Eat in, eat out—all meals are packaged in Styrofoam and sold with huge mounds of starch as a one or two-item combo. But so exhaustive is the chafing-tray repertoire that the thing you loved one day is likely not there the next. I ate a corned beef cooked with potato and peas, a preparation that even the Irish would envy, only to find it MIA each visit since. I've also yet to see laing again, taro leaves cooked down with coconut milk, shrimp paste and ginger—a salty, funky, soulful, wholly Filipino dish most people initially mistake for some sort of creamed spinach.
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At the end of the turo-turo line, all manner of tropical sweets await. If you're lucky enough to spot it, grab a stick of the rarely seen banana-cue, a deep-fried saba plantain coated in a crunchy shell of caramelized brown sugar. Pinoy Pam's Best's version of turon, a banana egg roll, is decent. Sticky, caramel-glazed skewers of golden-fried mochi balls called karioka and suman, sweet glutinous rice paste steamed inside banana-leaf parcels, are better and have different bents but the same stick-to-your teeth chew. And there's also the ever-popular halo halo, a shaved ice confection that has each distinct ingredient layered in a colorful strata like a geological core sample.
And I haven't even begun to mention the array of baked goods that Pinoy Pam's Best imports from the holy trinity of Filipino bakeries: Goldilock's, Luisa & Sons, and Valerio's. All three are from the Filipino-food promised land of Artesia and Cerritos, but in Orange County, Pinoy Pam's Best is our turo-turo oasis.
This review appeared in print as "Getting to the Point-Point: Eating Filipino in OC means turo-turo, so go for the latest and greatest at Pinoy Pam's Best."