When Manila Groove shut down last year, it was one less Filipino option in a sea of ethnic cuisines. Growing up in Daly City (where the fog is so thick from all the rice cookers hard at work), the only times my family went out for Filipino food were after church and en route to a party to pick-up a catering order. Otherwise, Mom and
Grandma Lola made most of my meals. And if you loved your Mom's cooking, you also know matching it would be next to impossible.
Learning about Playground 2.0's Wanderlust pop-up intrigued me. I interviewed Ryan Carson for On the Line when he worked for AnQi, and that's when I learned about his hapa heritage. After he left House of An, Ryan showcased his talent with Pri-ve dinners, conducting a weekly tour of tastes, creativity and molecular gastronomy. It was a matter of time before he visited his multi-cultural background, and I intended to taste his interpretation of my childhood.
Our meal kicked off with lumpia and smelt. Lumpia is a non-Filipino's gateway food: an eggroll stuffed with meat and veggies, deep fried til' crispy. I'll always remember a guy in college elaborating on his knowledge of the cuisine, “Yeah, my roommate was Filipino. Man, San Miguel and lumpia– BEST combination.” Of course, bottles of his perfect pairing were the drink of choice, and we enjoyed the old school lager. Ryan made his filling with mashed potatoes. Unheard of in my family, but more common for Americanized tastes, it was akin to shepherd's pie.
Pagtunaw isda were salty and greasy, tiny battered fish, tasting just how we like them. A pair of traditional dipping sauces (vinegary for the lumpia; sweet 'n spicy for smelt) neutralized some of the guilt. Yet we couldn't help but notice their golden appearance. Smelt and lumpia are normally many shades darker because of the tendency to reuse cooking oil when making large batches, and we wondered how much that factored in to our memory of comfort food. Also, I was probably one of two diners that ate these with our fingers, since they're technically appetizers (although making a full meal out of them wasn't out of the question). It would be pretty uncivilized if I didn't know better, but watching guests wield a fork and knife to eat these cracked me up.
Ryan's main courses represented what I typically ate the most: pancit and adobo. Pancit bihon is rice noodles cooked to a glassy sheen with julienne vegetables and meat incorporated throughout. The trick in executing this dish properly is timing a well-seasoned, thoroughly cooked noodle without it being too dry. My mom preferred a combination of canton (egg) and bihon noodles to create a more interesting texture. Crunchy bell peppers, cabbage and chicken were just a few of the components in his version, fired up in a scorching wok. In lieu of a bottle of calamansi, Carson set out bowls of fresh lime juice so we could season to our liking.
Adobo is made from chicken or pork, stewed in a sauce heavy in vinegar and soy. Served alongside steaming white rice, its cooking sauce infuses the rice with flavor, similar to cereal in milk. While our party appreciated his family-style servings, piling the protein over our rice drenched it to the point of oversaturation. It needed more rice. When we persisted for additional grains, they presented a small bowl filled with the equivalent of three bites. C'mon! I know you know better, Ryan.
Pastry chef Ashley Guzman helmed the dessert courses. Her trio of delights began with karioka– deep fried coconut rice balls. Desserts are tough to replicate, but with a box of mochiko (sweet rice flour), brown sugar and a lotta coconut, anything was possible. She skewered one per stick, resembling a cross between glazed doughnut holes and cake pops. The ever popular halo-halo was her combination of shaved ice, evaporated milk, tangy mango, creamy leche flan and other treats. Ashley scooped homemade coconut sorbet right before serving. After a little mix-mix, each spoonful was a burst of flavor.
The bibingka was our favorite. Guzman's steamed rice cake was served in a crown of banana leaves. The cheese topping reminded our friend of a canned, salted variety back in PI. Garnished with grated coconut, it was savory, yet light enough to appreciate after a rich meal.
At the conclusion, I was satiated. My friends were content. Ryan passed around take-out boxes for leftover hoarding, standard operating procedure at most family gatherings. Ryan and Ashley kept true to their roots; their Lolas would be proud.