This Hole-in-the-wall Life

Like every Orange County Filipino restaurant I've visited, MANILA FOOD MART in Lake Forest is a turo-turo ("point-point" in Filipino) place, which means all entrees sit in an ever-changing, ever-steaming buffet -- and you point at 'em. A mound of white rice on a Styrofoam plate is the only constant -- that and the duck eggs next to the cash register. But Manila Food Mart keeps a semblance of order amid this atmosphere of rotating trays and garlic-vinegar-heavy tastes and smells. One section of the buffet usually features something fried -- if it's not crispy pata (a gnarled pig leg that gushes warm fat when you bite into its chicharron-style skin), it's a golden-brown whole tilapia or a batch of lumpias, egg rolls stuffed with ground pork, bean sprouts and other vegetables. Cooks prepare at least one meat -- chicken, pork, beef or even baby squid -- as an adobo, a long marination process that soaks the flesh with a torrid garlic, soy sauce and vinegar. Pork anything is also a regular here -- the skewers of barbecued pork lightly painted with a luscious sauce are as good as those in any Anaheim kebab house -- but I'm partial to the beef meals. Especially the kare-kare: a swampy oxtail-and-squash soup whose secret ingredient is half a cup of creamy peanut butter.

But every turo-turo joint offers the same meals; Manila Food Mart differentiates itself by hawking various products, from such Filipino garb as handbags and barongs (an ornate, light long-sleeved shirt similar to the Caribbean guayabera) to a freezer stocked with ready-to-eat meals such as bags of plump, sugary longansina pork sausages. You'll find shelves of Filipino-specific condiments, including a banana sauce that looks like ketchup but is as sweet as jam. Best are the packs of sweets with Spanish names -- polvorones are really marzipans made with ube (sweet purple yam) flour; lengua de gato (cat's tongue) is a sort of sugared saltine; and the unfortunately named puto is actually a scrumptious rice cake. And while all Filipino restaurants fry turons -- bananas wrapped with egg roll paper -- few do it as delectably as Manila Food Mart, which dusts each burrito-big turon with brown sugar so that the interior caramelizes just so: the epitome of sweet.



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