Sawali Grill: Flipping Reputations
Have I told this story before? I'm sure I have, but it's so important that I'll repeat it. There's a prominent Southern California food critic—whose name I won't reveal so as to not fully shame him or her—who once told a Filipina friend of mine that there was nothing worthwhile about her culture's meals. Adobo? Bleh. Halo-halo? Stolen from the Chinese. Pancit? The same. This is a person famous for a love of nearly everything, who's not a bad critic despite being a mainstream-media voice—and every time I remember this anecdote, my regard for that person goes down just a little.
But doesn't that critic look the fool now! Filipino cuisine is finally achieving widespread acclaim, with Filipino-American chefs manning more kitchens across Southern California and working their grub into high-dining conversations: Witness the adobo chicken wings—saucy, garlicky stunners—offered by Jason "Chicken Wang" Montelibano over at Chapter One: The Modern Local. It's a style that will continue to influence Southern California cooking in the years to come, but we can thankfully still taste the original ways at the many turo-turo buffets that sprang up around Orange County during the 1990s and continue to thrive and multiply. So while we wait for a Filipino young gun to open a full-fledged spot in honor of his or her traditions (as opposed to dishes with said traditions), we should still visit the old-school charms of places such as Sawali Grill.
Our art critic Dave Barton chose it as the Best Filipino Restaurant for our Best Of issue this year, and while I wouldn't have made the same choice (my heart and gut belong to Kapit Bahay), I didn't dispute it. Sawali Grill is a grand carousel of Filipino standards, from fried milkfish to squid cooked in its own ink to skewers of meat and trays bubbling with a frightening array of meats and vegetables that hit your palate with a furious jolt of flavors. The dishes are rotated according to demand, and Sunday brings lechon and pata, gnarled masses of fried pork oozing with fat. As with most turo-turo joints, don't bother asking for a menu—just point at what looks delicious.
If you ask for the names of dishes, workers respond in a bemused tone—don't take it personally. And it's that casual, almost insider ambiance, I feel, that ultimately turned off that Filipino-demeaning writer. Whatever: Sawali and its peers offer Southern California's next great cuisine—get with the program and point, or get relegated to raving about Rick Bayless anew.
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