Photo by Amy TheligIn her 1995 study Philippine Cuisine: A Country's Heritage, author Michaela Fenix described the river-crossed Pampanga province as host of the nation's best cuisine, evoking "both down-to-earth pleasures . . . and heavenly creations. . . . No one goes away [from a Pampango meal] with a feeling of dissatisfaction." A 1900 Spanish soldier's travelogue describes a breakfast in the region as "a scene belonging to The Thousand and One Nights." And no less an authority than the Philippines Department of Tourism declares Pampanga "the culinary center of the Philippines."
Knowing all this, curious diners may initially feel cheated upon entering Sisig Grill, perhaps the only county Filipino restaurant specializing in the illustrious Pampango cuisine. It's located in one of Anaheim's numerous decaying strip malls—a hearty-looking Lenscrafter is nearby—and the interior consists of little more than some tables, slow-spinning fans, and a staticky stereo blasting K-Earth's tired oldies. And this eatery's modus operandi is the buffet; although authentic per the turo-turo (point-point) cafeteria tradition of the Philippines, the rows of steamed trays overflowing with food might cause even the most adventurous gourmand to fear she'd stumbled into Hometown Buffet.
But stay. Sisig's cooks whip up new trays constantly to ensure freshness. And there is some order to the notoriously uneven turo-turo jumble here, with each day devoted to a specific take on vegetables, pork, beef, chicken and fish. More important, however, the stuff that Sisig's pampangüeño owners prepare fulfills their native region's culinary reputation superbly: most everything is awash in coconut milk and spices sweet, sour and sweltering, the best meal you've munched on in a while. Primary amongst the entrées is the Pampango version of chicken curry. Sisig's is a byproduct of the trade between Indian sailors and Pampango merchants that's occurred since time immemorial, but nothing like the curry endemic at that other famous buffet genre found at Indian restaurants come lunchtime. This curry is leaf-green, fabulously chunky, with enough strong hints of coconut and ginger to make you simultaneously sweat and smile.
The chicken curry is available Tuesdays only, as is the ginataang kalabasa na sitaw, the best reason to refrain from red meat since the apple. The dish is deceptively simple—just squash and string beans sautéed in garlic and spicy coconut milk, a couple of shrimp studded in to make things interesting. But the flavors inherent to ginataang kalabasa na sitaw are more numerous than islands in the Philippine archipelago: the squash assumes the consistency of sweet potato, while the string beans maintain a buttery decadence that withstands the sugary oppression of coconut milk. Order a couple of glistening longsilog (greasy-good sausages that taste like a more elegant chorizo) along with the chicken curry and ginataang kalabasa na sitaw, and you have a three-item combo for about five bucks. And remember that heaven on a cardboard plate is available only Tuesday: salvation appears differently the rest of the week.
Sisig Grill, 2622 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 761-2258.
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