Reaching Maximum Capacity, and Then Some, at Ellen's Pinoy Grille in La Palma

Sisig city
Jonathan Ho

Filipino Fill-Up
Reaching maximum capacity and then some at Ellen’s Pinoy Grille

Filipino food has been misunderstood, underappreciated and disrespected—even by me. When I was younger, I got exposed to it at catered events (weddings, baptisms) hosted by Filipino friends. The food usually sat out for far too long in chafing dishes—less-than-ideal conditions that amplified the cuisine’s peculiarities on my virgin palate.

Here, after all, was an Asian cuisine that bore no resemblance to any other Asian cuisine I knew of. There were cut-up hot dogs and grated Cheddar in the spaghetti, fatty pork in nearly everything, and this blood stew called dinuguan that looked even scarier than it sounded.

Not realizing I hadn’t seen the cuisine in its best light at these events, I once callously dismissed it with one regrettable statement, made within earshot of my date, a proud Filipina. “I hate Filipino food,” I said out loud, to her horror.

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My re-education began promptly after. She took me to the cities of Artesia and Cerritos, areas recognized by Pinoys and Filipino-food-lovers as Gardens of Eden. It was here where I was finally and properly introduced to the most soulful of all Asian cooking. Since then, what was once weird and peculiar has become endearing and familiar. At the same time, I discovered sisig, a Filipino pork dish that seemed to have materialized from my dreams.

Another discovery was that beyond the walls of this Eden were other oases of good Pinoy eats, some in OC. A few years ago, my esteemed colleague Gustavo Arellano wrote about Ellen’s Pinoy Grille in La Palma. This was a turo-turo joint, where you “point-point” at the selection with an outstretched finger or your lower lip (Filipinos, you know what I’m talkin’ about).

Recently, Ellen’s moved a few hundred feet into a bigger space in the same plaza. Its modus operandi remains the same: freshly made turo-turo. But now, the upgraded spot allows them to host get-togethers. And of course, it isn’t a Filipino party without karaoke (which will inevitably involve Elvis) and line dancing (which will inevitably involve the macarena). The new location has the room to do both.

For food, Ellen’s is acclaimed for the aforementioned sisig, a divine hash made by deep-frying pork to a crisp, chopping it up into fragments, and tossing it with citrus juice, ginger, diced onions and peppers. Traditionally, in the old country, sisig is made with meat chipped off a pig’s face, and can include some offal, even brains. Ellen’s sisig isn’t like that, but it’s still miles away from your mama’s Tuesday-night pork chops and a thousand times more addictive.

Once you’ve had it, you will crave sisig in both your sleeping and waking hours. The secret is in its formulation. Even though it’s composed mostly of hog, the porky richness is tempered by the citrus tartness and ginger bite. As a result, it’s extraordinarily light on the palate and you never get sick of eating it, even with the overly generous portions Ellen herself mounds onto your plate.

Ellen is like the auntie who’s constantly trying to feed you. She’ll always err to the side of too much food. But don’t protest. You’ll finish every morsel.

Sisig isn’t the only thing in her porcine repertoire. Ellen does a fine adobo (pork simmered with soy, vinegar and garlic), overstuffed siopaos (pork steamed buns), crispy lumpia shanghai (two-bite egg rolls filled with pork) and menudo, a tomato-ey pork-and-potato stew bearing no resemblance to the Mexican tripe soup. There is also pork in her pinakbet—a mélange of long beans, squash, bittermelon and eggplant—cooked with a pink, stinky flavoring agent called bagoong.

Her bittermelon dish keeps it simple with just a few bay shrimp and garlic. The palate-cleansing vegetable will be refreshing for those acquainted with its charms. For everyone else, it’ll seem like licking soap. But you don’t have to acquire a taste for the chayote. It looks and eats like honeydew with a subtler kind of sweetness and a broth best spooned over rice.

Absent from the ready-made trays is the pancit palabok, one of the few things they make to order. This slurpable jiggle of noodles—smothered in an orange-colored, vaguely pork-y, shrimp-y sauce—is part pad Thai, part spaghetti, but all Pinoy. Squeeze calamansi juice before eating, and say it out loud with me: I LOVE FILIPINO FOOD!

Ellen’s Pinoy Grille, 7921 Valley View St., La Palma, (714) 522-8866; Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Meal for two, $10-$15, food only.

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